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Life and Work of Joanna Baillie
Chapter 6 - Joanna Baillie's Place in Literature

North: James, who is the best female poet on the age?

Shepherd: Female what?

Tickler: Poet.

Shepherd: Mrs. John Biley. In her Plays on the Passions she has a’ the vigor o' a man, and a' the delicacy o’ a woman.

And Oh, Sire, but her lyrics are gems, and she wears them gracefully, like diamond-drops danglin’ frae the ears o’ Melpomene. The very worst play she ever wrote is better than the best o’ ony ither body’s that hasna kickt the bucket.

No woman, according to Jeffrey, was capable of understanding human passions, or of depicting the soul of a man swayed by the baser emotions. Yet Joanna Baillie attempted this very task, and, in large degree, succeeded. Her life was sheltered from all harsh contact with the world; she herself was never shaken by any of the passions that stir the soul of a man to the depths. And yet she devoted the best years of her life to delineating these emotions which were personally unknown to her, and produced characters whose chief fault is that they show too plainly the power of emotion. The age was interested in the analysis of the passions. Pope arranged the groups in much the same order that Joanna Baillie adopted:

Love, hope, and joy, fair pleasure’s smiling train,
Hate, fear, and grief, the family of pain,
These mixed with art, and to due bounds confined,
Make and maintain the balance of the mind.

Freed from the bonds of reason, they become the masters of life. In this latter guise, Joanna Baillie chose to show them in tragedy. The idea did not originate with her, for in 1781 at the Haymarket Theatre had appeared The School of Shakespeare, or Humours and Passions. The performance consisted of five acts:

Act I. Vanity, Henry IV, 1st part.
Act II. Parental Tenderness, Henry IV, 2d part.
Act III. Cruelty, Merchant of Venice.
Act IV. Filial Piety, Closet-scene in Hamlet.
Act V. Ambition, Henry VIII.

The same title was kept in a performance at Drury Lane in 1808, but the acts were changed:

Act I. Ambition, Macbeth.
Act II. Vanity, Henry IV.
Act III. Revenge, Merchant of Venice.
Act IV. Cowardice, Twelfth Night.
Act V. Slander, Much Ado about Nothing.

Imagination must have been the dominant characteristic of Joanna Baillie’s mind, because she was able to follow the emotion she depicted into the heart of the character, and to identify herself with it. This imaginative ability led her to make her most serious dramatic mistake. She was curious about the effect of an emotion upon an unusual person under unusual circumstances, and she thought that all the drama-reading and theatre-going world was equally curious. If a drama portrayed an emotion embodied in a human being, she was satisfied. As a result, she produced thirteen dramas, the chief characters in which were, as a rule, personifications of definite elements of human nature rather than genuine human beings. In her Plays of the Passions, that is to say, Miss Baillie was interested not in the characters, but in the emotions. She did not try to show the emotional person under a variety of conditions which would arouse varying feelings. She tried to represent a normal or a superior person who was controlled by one emotion, and who became to her, consequently, a type.

A comparison of Romiero and Othello will illustrate her use of jealousy. Romiero has no more ground for suspicion of his wife than has Othello; he has, moreover, less temptation to doubt. Romiero returns from an absence, finds Zorada, his wife, out of the castle, sees her return from the garden with Maurice, and is jealous. There is no Iago to suggest evil, and to fan the blaze of emotion whenever it shows signs of dying out. When Romiero is left alone, he rails against 'the heart of woman.' After a talk with Maurice, in whom he fails absolutely to detect signs of guilt, Romiero says:

The very eye and visage, light and thoughtless;
A woman's varying blushes with the tint
Of sun-burnt hunter mix’d; the very form,
Slight as a stripling, statured as a man,
Which has—detested spell! so oft beguiled
The female fancy, prizing worthless show.

The only evidence^ of an attempt to conquer this emotion occurs in the lines which immediately follow:

Can it be so? O no! it cannot be;
I but distract myself. I’ll crush within me
All thoughts which this way tend, as pois nous asps
That sting the soul and turn its bliss to bane.

His determination, however, is short-lived, for in the same speech he determines to watch his wife and Maurice closely that night. Zorada is harboring her father, whom Romiero has sworn to deliver to justice whenever he is caught, and her mind is confused, so that her behavior is not natural. Everything Romiero construes as guilt:

Is virtue thus demure, restrain'd, mysterious?
She, too, who was as cheerful as the light,
Courting the notice of my looks! no, no!
Some blasting change is here.

With this conviction firmly settled in his mind, Romiero takes but a step to belief in her impurity, and the tragedy follows. Miss Baillie partially redeems Romiero by making the murder of Zorada an accident, when she tries to protect her father from her husband's dagger. In this drama is no question from first to last as to Romiero’s motive; it is jealousy, practically unchecked by any other passion. Othello, on the other hand, kills Desdemona as the result of a combination of motives, among which jealousy is perhaps not the greatest. Romiero is an example of jealousy; Othello is an example of a human being, struggling with conflicting emotions, of which jealousy is one. Romiero is a fiction of the imagination; Othello is a representation of nature.

Joanna Baillie’s aim is clearly expressed in the Introductory Discourse, when she says that the passions should be shown in drama, not merely at a critical moment, but through their entire course. Each tragedy was to be the biography of a passion; its birth, its life, and its ultimate conclusion, were to be shown. So in Basil, the tragedy on love, the hero is a victim of love at first sight; he forgets his duty to his country as a military leader of importance, and his obligations to his soldiers and his friend; he ultimately takes his own life in despair over the wrong he has done. The emotions in the comedies were more difficult to handle; as, for example, in the case of love, the passion must be left to continue indefinitely if the marriage was to be a happy one.

The early dramas on the Passions are built on this theory of the importance of an individual emotion, shown in its entirety; and hence are artificial. Real life is not so simple a matter emotionally as these dramas suggest. Basil and De Monfort fail to hold our deepest attention mainly because they are not genuine representations of nature. By the time Miss Baillie reached ambition, she realized the impossibility of the program she had laid out for herself, and modified it. In Ethwald ambition is developed in ten acts. This fact in itself makes the drama more vivid, as we are freed from the restrictions of five acts, and see the dramatic growth of ambition through years. Ethwald also strikes another new note: the hero suffers from more than one emotion in his rise towards absolute power. As a young man, love of a maid plays its part; fear threatens to overcome him when he stops to consider the crime he has committed; there is even a suggestion of remorse for infidelity to his friend. As all these feelings are present, from time to time a struggle occurs in his heart, in spite of the fact that ambition always wins. Ethwald is a human being.

The high-water mark of the Plays of the Passions is reached in the last, Henriquez. Remorse is the avowed subject of the drama, but it is not isolated. It nms its course from the hour of the murder to the time when the hero is led away to his death. But remorse does not stand alone; from time to time it is associated with many other emotions. Henriquez loves his wife devotedly; he murders his friend because of the conquest of jealousy over the good traits of his character; remorse comes when the cause of his jealousy is removed, and he finds that his wife is true to him; he hopes for pardon for his deed as the result of his reparation, and firm in that hope he dies. Fear and hatred alone are lacking. Henriquez is a truly dramatic character. He is individual, a man endowed with unusual ability, fighting the varied conflicts of life, and moved by different emotions, against which reason does not always prevail.

The only emotion which Miss Baillie found it impossible to pigeonhole is love. That passion runs through all the dramas, showing itself in so many different situations that it is, in fact, the one passion fully described from first to last. Basil dies for love of Victoria; De Monfort exhibits a selfish love for his sister; Aurora bases her hope of happiness entirely on her love for Ermingard; Zorada dies for love of her father; Leonora risks life and reputation because of her love for Osterloo; Countess Valdemere pretends to love Baron Baurchel in order to secure great gifts from him; and so on through the long list of Joanna Baillie’s characters.

Before the tale of her plays dealing with the emotions was finished, Miss Baillie began writing independent plays. In these, thirteen in number, she threw aside all theory, and wrote freely. The two dramas that have had the longest runs on the stage, The Family Legend and Constantine Paleologus, belong to this group. It is noteworthy that the plots of these two plays are the only ones that are not entirely original with her; The Family Legend was based upon a Scottish legend, and Constantine Paleologus upon history. Even in the latter case, however, the most interesting character, Valeria, is created entirely by her imagination in order to explain and emphasize the bravery and patriotism of the last emperor of the Greeks in Constantinople.

If Joanna Baillie’s theory of drama were entirely wrong, we should find her greatest successes among the plays of her later life, after she had completed her difficult task. As a matter of fact, however, most of her best work is found in the late Plays on the Passions. By that time she had freed herself from the shackles of her early theory, retaining only what was best. Her conception of the dramatic world was entirely theoretical and intellectual. To those who demand intellectual profit from the drama, her accomplishment seems remarkable. But the public demands from a play more than mental stimulus; in the degree in which Joanna Baillie added emotional to intellectual appeal, she was successful.

Joanna Baillie went 'simply, naturally, strongly to the very heart of the mystery of man’s strongest passions and most solemn sacrifices.' In occasional passages she shows an uncanny knowledge of the human heart, and of the ways in which intense emotion affects character. It is hard to believe that her most successful heroes were conceived by a woman, and an unmarried Scotch woman at that. In Henriquez her grasp on her subject is almost masculine. Tytler and Watson emphasize especially this combination of masculine and feminine qualities: ‘She had a great man’s grand guilelessness rather than a woman’s minute and subtle powers of sympathy; a man’s shy but unstinted kindness and forbearance rather than a woman’s eager but measured cordiality and softness; a man’s modesty in full combination with a woman’s delicacy; and, as if to prove her sex beyond mistake, she had, after all, more than the usual share of a woman’s tenacity and headstrongness when the fit was upon her.’

Her greatest success, however, if we except Henriquez, is in the women whom she has created. The early heroines are rather shadowy and conventional. Victoria is more of a casus belli than a living woman; and Agnes Withrington is typical of the busy comedy that Miss Baillie criticized so sweepingly. With Jane De Monfort, a model woman, Miss Baillie begins her pictures of noble womanhood. Gracious, dignified, clever, and affectionate, Jane De Monfort has enough virtues to make her an ideal, and enough faults to keep her human. The fact that this great heroine was past her first flowery youth helped to convince the reading world that the author was a woman. The satire on women expressed by Countess Valdemere in The Siege remains in the reader’s memory long after the braggart Count is forgotten. The outspoken frankness of the Scotch woman hated the flattery and cajolery of English society so keenly as to give an edge to her caricature in Countess Valdemere. Orra is another character who haunts the reader’s mind, this time arousing neither admiration nor scorn, but pity. The lonely girl, whose instinctive fear of the supernatural is worked upon by a group of the most heartless villains in all drama, is indeed a coward. Her physical fear, however, is in no way repulsive; the moral cowardice of her only guardian, Catharine, is much more objectionable. And so we come to Aurora, the beautiful girl, who typifies fidelity more fully than hope, and to Helen of Argyle, the shadowy Scotch girl, who is the centre of The Family Legend, although she seldom appears on the scene.

Joanna Baillie’s women are, with few exceptions, virtuous. Nina and Catharine are the victims of evil men, both of whom have deserted women who had loved them. The chief punishment meted out to Valdemere is that he shall marry Nina, and that punishment consists only in the fact that she is of lower social rank than he, and cannot furnish her lord with a convenient fortune. Catharine is the most pitiful character in all these dramas, a woman ruled by the fear of shame. Rudigere holds her as his slave because, in spite of her lofty character, she left the path of virtue for him. Fear of exposure is stronger in her than honor, and through it she is made a party in the torture of Orra. Rudigere’s death satisfies our sense of justice, more because of the freedom it brings to her than as a punishment for his ill-treatment of Orra. In Rayner occurs the one truly evil character, a courtesan who deserts her lover, when he is sick and in danger, for a man with more money. Mira has no redeeming quality, an estimate we should expect from the author's narrow experience of life.

Granted that an unusual theory limited the dramatic freedom of Joanna Baillie, and that she broke away from strict adherence to it in order to represent life as she saw it, in what form did she express her ideas? Again she establishes a high ideal for herself in the Introductory Discourse. If one emotion is to be shown completely, its contours must not be blurred by the passions of minor characters. This demand for clearness of impression necessitated a simplicity of plot-construction seldom found in drama, and led her to abandon all sub-plots. The result is interesting to the student of the dramas: upon a reader the effect is, in most cases, pleasing; upon the spectator it proved to be less satisfactory.

A plot which develops one emotion in one set of characters, without any interruption from minor threads of narrative, makes a strong impression upon the reader. Such simplicity of outline in drama, as in other forms of art, is restful and satisfying. We read within a comparatively brief time the story of the downfall of Henriquez, and of his final attainment of real sublimity of character through suffering. The catharsis is actual, even with our modem light opinion of the sanctity of life; pity and fear are unadulterated by any less noble feelings. Henriquez on the stage, however, would be overpowering. The cumulative effect of the hero's remorse, as portrayed by a great actor, would be too heavy a burden for any normal audience.

In Orra the same consistent effect is produced. With Aurora in The Beacon, we watch the fire in constant expectation. The minor characters who enter and depart serve the purpose of the brave Aurora; none is intent upon his own affairs. Expectation is the keynote, more definitely than hope. When Ermingard arrives, we feel a temporary satisfaction of our emotional demand, but the feeling is short-lived. Hope is still necessary, hope for the reunion of two noble lovers, unjustly separated. With some justification of the hope of a happy outcome, the story closes. Such simplicity is noble in every respect; it is an ideal towards which serious dramatists strive. It is, however, not the characteristic which secures a favorable report from the box-office.

This simplification of plot is intentional. In De Monfort, Miss Baillie included originally the rudiments of a second thread of action. Before the opening of the present third act, occurred a brief conversation in which Countess Freberg betrayed active jealousy of Jane De Monfort. In the fourth edition, and in the collected works, this scene is entirely omitted. As a result, the emotion that Countess Freberg shows in talking with her husband is not effective, as it leads to nothing. If this motive had been developed, the tension of the audience would have been relieved, and the events leading to the final catastrophe could have been more fully motivated. Another example of this repression occurs in The Trial. We are told at the very beginning that Mariane has become engaged to Withrington's favorite nephew without the uncle's consent. A partial reconciliation between Mariane and Withrington occurs in Act 1; no further attention is paid to this plot until the very end of Act V, when Withrington pompously announces that Mariane is ‘engaged to a very worthy young man, who will receive with her a fortune by no means contemptible.' Such an opportunity for complication Shakespeare would never have neglected. It would be possible to pile up similar instances, where dramatic effectiveness has been allowed to suffer for the sake of one definite emotional appeal.

In the Miscellaneous Plays there are several examples of a sub-plot used to good effect. In The Match, the love-affair of the nephew and niece of the protagonists furnishes an invaluable foil to the indecision and complication of Latitia's mental processes. Without the sub-plot, the play would be uninteresting and monotonous.

Life is mercifully lightened by patches of supshine when everything seems dark. Work, or friendship, or providence, provides an outlet for pent-up emotion. Should not the same relief be provided for a long-continued strain of powerful dramatic representation? The failure of Joanna Baillie to break the tension in the plots is serious. Again we may attribute the weakness to her theory, rather than to ignorance of life. The single emotion controlled her—the type, and not the living being. Her eyes were fixed on the lesson to be derived from the portrayal of the loss of reason and of the rule by passion; they were not fixed on life.

None of the dramas which have been professionally produced has any complication of plot, or dramatic relief. Each moves steadily and evenly toward a goal that is evident from the first, unrelieved by any decided change of feeling. The audiences of Joanna Baillie's day were accustomed to startling sensations, and rapid change of emotion. As a result, they yawned over the growing hatred of De Monfort, and applauded The Family Legend only when they themselves were complimented by a patriotic note.

She realized fully the danger she ran of losing the attention of her audience, and tried to compensate for this lack of plot-intricacy by pomp and display. She believed that a splendid procession, a ceremonial banquet, or a battle, 'would afford to a person of the best understanding a pleasure in kind, though not in degree, with that which a child would receive from it; but when it is past he thinks no more of it.’ The first act of Basil furnishes an example of this use of military parade. As soon as the procession passes, the emotional note of the tragedy is struck. In Ethwald a battle is used in the same way; a comic battle figures in The Siege. A similar effect is produced by the introduction of a banquet or masquerade. De Monfort affords the best opportunity for brilliant display, but in this case the action of the drama is advanced during the masquerade. In production, this scene was intensified so as to increase the relief from the tragic tone. Basil, The Siege, Henriquez, Rayner, The Family Legend, The Phantom, Enthusiasm, and The Bride, all contain group-celebrations of some sort, that serve this definite purpose.

The ignorance of psychology that caused this entire absence of emotional relief accounts for many other technical weaknesses. Her stage was too often left vacant, scenes changed with puzzling and unnecessary frequency, interest was often lost by a too early certainty as to the outcome, and scenes and acts were often allowed to close with an anticlimax. All these defects were due to her failure to appreciate the importance of technique, and not to lack of ability. An example of skilful use of suspense occurs in Act II of De Monfort. Jane has finally broken down her brother’s reserve, and succeeded in rousing him to a desire for manhood.

What a most noble creature wouldst thou be! she exclaims; he replies:

Ay, if I could: Alas! Alas! I cannot.

Jane's answer is so genuine that it arouses hope in the spectator:

Thou canst, thou mayst, thou wilt.
We shall not part till I have turn’d thy soul.
They go to her closet with his final promise,
Do as thou wilt,, I will not grieve thee more.

The fact that the following act ends with much the same hopeful tone may account in part for the degree of stage-success which was accorded this drama.

The Stripling is the most successful of all the dramas in the use of suspense. When Young Arden declares that he has thought of a plan to save his father's life, we have no clue to his purpose. His excitement over the sudden idea suggests a trick upon Robinair, by means of which he will save his mother's honor. The discovery that he plans to murder the man who holds the only evidence against his father, comes as almost too great a surprise, and his apprehension and death are not anticipated.

One of the best examples of action which ends with a complication of emotion, so that we are eager for the next scene, is Act IV of De Monfort. Rezenvelt crosses the stage; an owl hoots in evil omen; he hears the convent bell,

That, to a fearful superstitious mind,
In such a scene, would like a death-knell come.

He passes into the forest, where we know De Monfort and death are waiting for him, and the curtain falls. One powerful ending, such as this, proves the ability that Joanna Baillie possessed.

Suggestion has been made in several places that Joanna Baillie emphasized the passions even at the sacrifice of effectiveness, for the sake of a moral purpose. She firmly believed that ancient drama had been made to serve evil ends, and criticized the most popular modern comedy on the same ground. A drama was to her an opportunity to teach a strong moral lesson to a mass of middle-class people. Her aim amounted to a Greek catharsis, for she hoped, by representing the tempest that is aroused by unbridled emotion, to show the ‘ rising signs 'of its coming, and the ‘situations that will most expose us to its rage.’ As a result of this sincere purpose, she has shown us a great variety of middle-class people who are threatened by the predominance of an evil passion, or who are ennobled by their fidelity to one that is good. She was wise enough not to preach outright, with the exception of a few soliloquies that express genuine emotion. Instead of antagonizing in that way those whom she hoped to reach, she gave to all her characters reward for nobility, or punishment for vice. To secure such wholesale justice was difficult in the case of so evil a group of men as the conspirators in Orra, but she made their own evil-doing recoil upon themselves. Her ignorance of life is more apparent here than anywhere else. Her idea of crime seems to be confined to the sixth commandment. Murder runs through the dramas like a crimson thread. It seems to be her sole means of producing plot-complication: of punishing a criminal, freeing from punishment one who is innocent in spirit, but guilty in action, of securing revenge.

None of her heroes is sacrilegious or profane; adultery is almost unknown; dishonor of parents is rare; and one's neighbor’s goods are secure. Most of the characters speak as Joanna Baillie herself would speak in their situations; in this respect also they are projections of her imagination.

Middle-class people speaking middle-class language in unusual circumstances require expert treatment if they are to be interesting. Her characters think and talk too much, and act too little, to interest the ordinary people of her day—or, we may say, of any day. True to Greek ideals, she omitted the act, and presented the meditation before and after it. This may be illustrated by De Monfort’s murder of Rezenvelt. He went to the forest determined to do the deed, but the murder occurred after the curtain falls on Act IV. All of Act V is spent in comments on the murder, and in the emotional reaction in De Monfort that results—again off the scene— in his death.

The moral purpose of these dramas by Joanna Baillie was a sufficient warrant for her attempts at depicting the more terrible emotions. The criticism we must make is directed not towards the purpose, but towards the means by which she tried to secure it. Here, again, is not the explanation to be found in her ignorance of the character of the mass of people? She judged people by those whom she knew, and the fact that her own world approved so enthusiastically both her aim and her accomplishment shows that she read it aright. What she did not understand was the mind of the man of lower intellectual level than her own, who formed the mass of the English people, and who judged a man according to his actions, not his contemplations.

The importance of dialogue was much magnified in Miss Baillie’s eyes. However much we may miss the clever business of Shakespeare, or even the devices of the circumstantial comedy that she so deeply scorns, we are seldom disappointed in her dialogue. There are in her tragedies speeches of as great beauty as those of any dramatist since Shakespeare. If all Joanna Baillie's poetry were on the level of her highest verse, she would rank with our great poets. The dialogue of the tragedies is as superior to that of the comedies as are the tragic to the comic heroes. In them the emotion shakes the

hero to the depths of his nature, and when his reserve is gone, he utters his emotion freely, too often in long monologues and soliloquies. These speeches, again, beautiful as they are in themselves, help to destroy the reality of the scene. The reader inevitably feels that Miss Baillie is here trying to follow closely in the footsteps of Shakespeare, and failing because her dramatic instinct is less fine than his.

But Joanna Baillie is more than a dramatic moralist, she is an ambitious poet as well. In the Introductory Discourse of 1798 she enunciated clearly a theory of poetry definitely agreeing with the aims of the Lake poets. It is no wonder that Wordsworth admired her. She strove in her Plays on the Passions for that genuine representation of nature which was the basis of all his poetry. Wordsworth and Coleridge received greater ridicule from the reviewers than did Joanna Baillie; yet they persevered. Joanna Baillie failed on the stage, but succeeeded in the closet. In her dramas she used the language of the middle-class Englishmen about middle-class characters, but did not produce even a middle-class result on the stage. Her many dramas, however, long continued popular with the reading public, as a glance at the list of editions of her dramas will show. Young and old were influenced by the simplicity and the ‘Unsophisticated expression’ of truthful thought and feeling in her stories. The very simplicity of the plots helped, as she intended, to call attention to the natural language which she used. As a result, many Englishmen who never troubled to read the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, and who scorned Wordsworth’s poems as lacking elevation of tone, were won over unconsciously to the new theory.

Joanna Baillie wrote at a time when the poetic literature of England was breaking away from the formal manner of the preceding generation. Life was throbbing in the new poetry, in essay, and in novel. The drama alone seemed to lack the new stimulus; there were no English or Scotch dramatic writers of note. Into this dead calm came suddenly the Plays on the Passions, with a theory of truth to life as it really is in language, and to emotion as it appeared to the author. Their effect upon dramatic production was decided. The consistent simplicity of plot, the unfaltering determination to raise the moral tone of theatrical representations, and the insistence that the 'wages of sin is death' all forced themselves into the literary consciousness of the English people.

With a theory of so high an aesthetic value, a purpose of so noble a moral tone, and an imagination of so vivid a character, is it any wonder that Joanna Baillie’s contemporaries placed her above all women poets, except Sappho? Since the middle of the nineteenth century several English women have surpassed her in accomplishment; none has surpassed her in tenacity to a noble purpose or in literary influence. In spite of Home's success with his one popular drama, Douglas, Joanna Baillie stands to-day as the greatest Scotch dramatist.

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