DE MONFORT: A TRAGEDY (1798/1800)
JOANNA BAILLIE (17621851)
The Scottish poet and dramatist Joanna Baillie spent most of her life in Hampstead, London, and moved in Bluestocking circles from an early age. Her major work was A Series of Plays . . . on the Passions, each ‘passion’ being the subject of a tragedy and then of a comedy, beginning in 1798 and enlarged to a total of 26 plays over the following years. The finest was the early tragedy on ‘hate’, De Monfort, which was produced at Drury Lane in 1800, with Mr Kemble as De Monfort and his sister Mrs Siddons as Jane Monfort, sister of De Monfort. The senior designer of Drury Lane, William Capon, was an enthusiast for Gothic architecture, and his design for the convent chapel in De Monfort employed all available levels of side-wing grooves in its 52-feet vista of nave, aisles, and choir, with a storm beating against a pointed-arch window, through which a grave was visible in the distance. The setting was acclaimed more universally than the play, and was adapted for later Gothic plays. The collection as a whole was an instant success when it first appeared anonymously in 1798: many people called the author presumed to be a man a second Shakespeare, and there was much speculation about the author’s identity, e.g. by Anna Seward and by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, until Baillie finally made herself known in the 1800 edition. Baillie continued to be praised among literary women, but, according to Mrs Piozzi, ‘No sooner, however, did an unknown girl own the work, than the value so fell, her booksellers complained they could not get themselves paid for what they did, nor did their merits ever again swell the throat of public applause’ (letter, March 1819). Baillie became a great friend of Sir Walter Scott from 1808, and wrote increasingly on Scottish themes and in Scottish ballad metres. Her Scottish Gothic melodrama The Family Legend, performed in Edinburgh in 1810 with Mrs Siddons again in the leading role, was a great success. Her late play on the passion of ‘horror’, Orra (1812), was very popular, but Byron was not successful in his efforts to revive De Monfort for Drury Lane in 1815.
(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)
Persons of the Drama.
COUNT FREBERG , Friend to De Monfort and Rezenvelt.
MANUEL, Servant to De Monfort.
JEROME, De Monfort’s old Landlord.
CONRAD, an artful knave.
BERNARD, a Monk.
Monks, Gentlemen, Officers, Page, &c. &c.
JANE DE MONFORT, Sister to De Monfort.
COUNTESS FREGERG, Wife to Freberg.
THERESA, Servant to the Countess.
Abess, Nuns, and a Lay Sister, Ladies, &c.
Scene, a Town in Germany.
ACT II. SCENE II.
De Monfort’s apartments. Enter DE MONFORT, with a disordered air, and his hand pressed upon his forehead, followed by JANE.
De Mon. No more, my sister, urge me not again: Enter MANUEL.
My secret troubles cannot be reveal’d.
From all participation of its thoughts
My heart recoils: I pray thee be contented.
Jane. What, must I, like a distant humble friend,
Observe thy restless eye, and gait disturb’d,
In timid silence, whilst with yearning heart
I turn aside to weep? O no! De Monfort!
A nobler task thy nobler mind will give;
Thy true entrusted friend I still shall be.
De Mon. Ah, Jane, forbear! I cannot e’en to thee.
Jane. They fy upon it! fy upon it, Monfort!
There was a time when e’en with murder stain’d,
Had it been possible that such dire deed
Could e’er have been the crime of one so piteous,
Thou would’st have told it me.
De Mon. So would I now but ask of this no more.
All other trouble but the one I feel
I had disclosed to thee. I pray thee spare me.
It is the secret weakness of my nature.
Jane. Then secret let it be; I urge no farther.
The eldest of our valiant father’s hopes,
So sadly orphan’d, side by side we stood,
Like two young trees, whose boughs in early strength,
Screen the weak saplings of the rising grove,
And brave the storm together
I have so long, as if by nature’s right,
Thy bosom’s inmate and adviser been,
I thought thro’ life I should have so remain’d,
Nor ever known a change. Forgive me, Monfort,
A humbler station will I take by thee:
The close attendant of thy wand’ring steps;
The cheerer of this home, with strangers sought;
The soother of those griefs I must not know,
This is mine office now: I ask no more.
De Mon. Oh Jane! thou doest constrain me with thy love!
Would I could tell it thee!
Jane. Thou shalt not tell me. Nay I’ll stop mine ears,
Nor from the yearnings of affection wring
What shrinks from utt’rance. Let it pass, my brother.
I’ll stay by thee; I’ll cheer thee, comfort thee:
Pursue with thee the study of some art,
Or nobler science, that compels the mind
To steady thought progressive, driving forth
All floating, wild, unhappy fantasies;
Till thou, with brow unclouded, smilest again;
Like one who, from dark visions of the night,
When th’ active soul within its lifeless cell
Holds its own world, with dreadful fancy press’d
Of some dire, terrible, or murd’rous deed,
Wakes to the dawning morn, and blesses heaven.
De Mon. It will not pass away: ’twill haunt me still;
Jane. Ah! say not so, for I will haunt thee too;
And be to it so close an adversary,
That, though I wrestle darkling with the fiend,
I shall o’ercome it.
De Mon. Thou most gen’rous woman!
Why do I treat thee thus? It should not be
And yet I cannot O that cursed villain!
He will not let me be the man I would.
Jane. What says’t thou, Monfort? Oh! what words are these?
They have awaked my soul to dreadful thoughts.
I do beseech thee speak!
(He shakes his head and turns from her; she following him.)
By the affection thou didst ever bear me;
By the dear mem’ry of our infant days;
By kindred living ties, ay, and by those
Who sleep i’the tomb, and cannot call to thee,
I do conjure thee speak!
(He waves her off with his hand, and covers his face with the other, still turning from her.)
Ha! wilt thou not?
(Assuming dignity.) Then, if affection, most unwearied love,
Tried early, long, and never wanting found,
O’er gen’rous man hath more authority,
More rightful power than crown and sceptre give,
I do command thee.
(He throws himself into a chair greatly agitated.)
De Monfort, do not thus resist my love.
Here I entreat thee on my bended knees. (Kneeling.)
Alas! my brother!
(DE MONFORT starts up, and catching her in his arms, raises her up, then placing her in the chair, kneels at her feet.)
De Mon. Thus let him kneel who should the abased be,
And at thine honour’d feet confession make.
I’ll tell thee all but oh! thou wilt despise me.
For in my breast a raging passion burns,
To which thy soul no sympathy will own.
A passion which hath made my nightly couch
A place of torment; and the light of day,
With the gay intercourse of social man,
Feel like th’ oppressive airless pestilence.
O Jane! thou wilt despise me.
Jane. Say not so:
I never can despise thee, gentle brother.
A lover’s jealousy and hopeless pangs
No kindly heart contemns.
De Mon. A lover, say’st thou?
No, it is hate! black, lasting, deadly hate!
Which thus hath driven me forth from kindred peace,
From social pleasure, from my native home,
To be a sullen wand’rer on the earth,
Avoiding all men, cursing and accursed.
Jane. De Monfort, this is fiend-like, frightful, terrible!
What being, by th’ Almighty Father form’d,
Of flesh and blood, created even as thou,
Could in thy breast such horrid tempest [m]ake,
Who art thyself his fellow?
Unknit thy brows, and spread those wrath-clench’d hands?
Some sprite accurst within thy bosom mates
To work thy ruin. Strive with it, my brother!
Strive bravely with it; drive it from thy breast:
’Tis the degrader of a noble heart:
Curse it, and bid it part.
De Mon. It will not part. (His hand on his breast.) I’ve lodged it here too long:
With my first cares I felt its rankling touch;
I loathed him when a boy.
Jane. Who did’st thou say?
Oh! that detested Rezenvelt;
E’en in our early sports, like two young whelps
Of hostile breed, instinctively reverse.
Each ‘gainst the other pitch’d his ready pledge,
And frown’d defiance. As we onward pass’d
From youth to man’s estate, his narrow art.
And envious gibing malice, poorly veil’d
In the affected carelessness of mirth,
Still more detestable and odious grew.
There is no living being on this earth
Who can conceive the malice of his soul,
With all his gay and damned merriment,
To those, by fortune or by merit placed
Above his paltry self. When, low in fortune,
He look’d upon the state of prosp’rous men,
As nightly birds, roused from their murky holes,
Do scowl and chatter at the light of day,
I could endure it; even as we bear
Th’ impotent bite of some half-trodden worm,
I could endure it. But when honours came,
And wealth and new-got titles fed his pride;
Whilst flatt’ring knaves did trumpet forth his praise,
And grov’ling idiots grinn’d applauses on him;
Oh! then I could no longer suffer it!
It drove me frantick. What! what would I give!
What would I give to crush the bloated toad,
So rankly do I loathe him!
Jane. And would thy hatred crush the very man
Who gave to thee that life he might have ta’en?
That life which thou so rashly did’st expose
To aim at his! Oh! this is horrible!
De Mon. Ha! thou hast heard it, then? From all the world,
But most of all from thee, I thought it hid.
Jane. I heard a secret whisper, and resolved
Upon the instant to return to thee.
Did’st thou receive my letter?
De Mon. I did! I did! ’twas that which drove me hither.
I could not bear to meet thine eye again.
Jane. Alas! that, tempted by a sister’s tears,
I ever left thy house! these few past months,
These absent months, have brought us all this woe.
Had I remain’d with thee it had not been.
And yet, methinks, it should not move you thus.
You dared him to the field; both bravely fought;
He more adroit disarm’d you; courteously
Return’d the forfeit sword, which, so return’d,
You did refuse to use against him more;
And then, as says report, you parted friends.
De Mon. When he disarm’d this cursed, this worthless hand
Of its most worthless weapon, he but spared
From dev’lish pride, which now derived a bliss
In seeing me thus fettr’d, shamed, subjected
With the vile favour of his poor forbearance;
Whilst he securely sits with gibing brow,
And basely bates me like a muzzled cur
Who cannot turn again.
Until that day, till that accursed day,
I knew not half the torment of this hell,
Which burns within my breast. Heaven’s lightnings blast him!
Jane. O this is horrible! Forbear, forbear!
Lest heaven’s vengeance light upon thy head,
For this most impious wish.
Then let it light.
Torments more fell that I have felt already
It cannot send. To be annihilated,
What all men shrink from; to be dust, be nothing,
Were bliss to me, compared to what I am!
Jane. Oh! would’st thou kill me with these dreadful words?
De Mon. (raising his arms to heaven.) Let me but once upon his ruin look,
Then close mine eyes for ever!
(JANE in great distress, staggers back, and supports herself upon the side scene. DE MON. alarm’d, runs up to her with a soften’d voice.)
Ha! how is this? thou’rt ill; thou’rt very pale.
What have I done to thee? Alas, alas!
I meant not to distress thee. O my sister!
Jane. (shaking her head.) I cannot speak to thee.
I have kill’d thee.
Turn, turn thee not away! look on me still!
Oh! droop not thus, my life, my pride, my sister;
Look on me yet again.
Thou too, De Monfort,
In better days, were wont to be my pride.
De Mon. I am a wretch, most wretched in myself,
And still more wretched in the pain I give.
O curse that villain! that destested villain!
He hath spread mis’ry o’er my fated life:
He will undo us all.
Jane. I’ve held my warfare through a troubled world,
And borne with steady mind my share of ill,
For then the helpmate of my toil wert thou.
But now the wain of life comes darkly on,
And hideous passion tears me from my heart,
Blasting thy worth. I cannot strive with this.
De Mon. (affectionately.) What shall I do?
Call up thy noble spirit;
Rouse all the gen’rous energy of virtue;
And with the strength of heaven-endued man,
Repel the hideous foe. Be great; be valiant.
O, if thou could’st! E’en shrouded as thou art
In all the sad infirmities of nature,
What a most noble creature would’st thou be!
De Mon. Ay, if I could: alas! alas! I cannot.
Jane. Thou can’st, thou may’st, thou wilt.
We shall not part till I have turn’d thy soul.
De Mon. Ha! some one enters. Wherefore com’st thou here?
Man. Count Freberg waits your leisure.
De Mon. (angrily.) Be gone, be gone! I cannot see him now.
Jane. Come to my closet; free from all intrusion,
I’ll school thee there; and thou again shall be
My willing pupil, and my gen’rous friend,
The noble Monfort I have loved so long,
And must not, will not lose.
De Mon. Do as thou wilt; I will not grieve thee more.
[SOURCE: Joanna Baillie, A Series of Plays: in which it is attempted to delineate The Stronger Passions of the Mind, 4th edn, 3 vols (London: T. Cadell, Jun. and W. Davies, 1802), vol. 1, pp. 302, 33544]
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