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HEROD IN THE DRAMA
By J. B. FLETCHER
I was led to read some of the dramatic accounts of the domestic infelicities of Herod first, because browsing among writings of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, I had come across Hans Sachs' quaint old play on the subject, then on Lodovico Dolce's Senecan tragedy, then on Calderon's “ cloak-and-sword ” adaptation, then on Sampson and Markham's “ tragedy of blood," then on Alexandre Hardy's tragi-comedy, then on Philip Massinger's version under Italian names in the “ Duke of Milan.” Then I began to wonder how many more there might be.
In the second place, while I was still wondering—and hunting, Stephen Phillips's Herod appeared. Together with Rostand's Cyrano, Phillips's play made quite a furore. The drama in verse seemed to have really come back.
Appearing nearly at the same time, the Cyrano de Bergerac and the Herod formed an interesting contrast both in theme and in treatment. In the Cyrano, love is shown rising almost fantastically superior to jealousy; in the Herod, jealousy most brutally tramples on love. In keeping with his romantic theme, Rostand embroidered in nearly every device of romance—mistaken identities, heroically unequal combats, mysterious midnight meetings, “ disastrous chances," " moving accidents by flood and field," "hair-breadth 'scapes i' the imminent deadly breach.” And Rostand's style was as variegated, as capricious, as startling as his matter. And to cap the Gothic fantasy, there was the gargoyle Nose! In Phillips's piece, on the contrary, all was prim, pruned, precise, classic; the complex personal equation of his hero was reduced to its lowest terms; no character, no episode, no scene, no line but subserved, and of necessity, the logical catastrophe. His verse and vocabulary strained after the same severe simplicity. Rostand took us back to Victor Hugo; Phillips to Voltaire.
There was another difference between the literary performances which happened at the moment to interest me. Rostand had discovered the dramatic Cyrano; his creation was unique. Phillips had to differentiate his hero from many previous dramatic portraits, of which the first-and by no means least dramatic—was that painted by the historian of the Jews, Josephus himself. After him there had been, as I had by this time counted, fully twentyfive plays about Herod.
The dramatic possibilities of Herod's story are indeed rich. Phillips himself has been quoted somewhere as saying that the story is the most dramatic in history. More than this, not only is the motive of a great tragedy embedded in the brief narrative of Josephus, but, as the editor of Tristan l'Hermite's Mariano pointed out early in the seventeenth century, Josephus also provides all the dramatis personae, and prescribes the conduct of the action “selon les règles les plus etroites d’Aristote et du bon sens." Yet for some reason the theme has not proved a very lucky one for those who essayed it. Even Voltaire at the height of his popularity, extracting and chiselling this tragedy already roughhewn by Josephus, failed to please even his own peculiar public. Friedrich Hebbel, in Germany, staked his dramatic reputation on his very special rendering of the story; and his play was laughed off the stage. Lodovico Dolce was in general a successful playright; Symonds thought his Marianna the one Cinquecento tragedy "in which a glimmer of dramatic light is visible;” Dolce's play observed the strictest Senecan requirements; it was lavishly staged in Venice in the palace of the Duke of Ferrara, where they managed those things well; yet, as the author laments in his preface, the piece fell flat. Phillips's piece had indeed its moment of glory; but the one real hit appears to have been made by Calderon, and his play to-day would still make a hit, if put—where it belongsin the movies.
Precisely because Herod's story, though richly tragic, seems also to be somehow rather unmanageable for the dramatist, comparative study of it is repaying. Dramatists have tried to put it into all the moulds of drama. They have made all kinds of people out of the historical personages named and described by Josephus. They have twisted the plot every which way, and have intertwisted it with other plots, sometimes taken from Herod's other misadventures, sometimes invented. To observe their results, is a very good way
*A monograph by Marcus Landau (Zeitschrift f. Vergleichenden Litt., VIII, 1894) also helped. I have drawn upon his analyses of plays that I was unable to get at.