RIDGELY TORRENCE

MR. RIDGELY TORRENCE, whose poetic drama, _El Dorado_, brought him
generous recognition, gave earlier hostages to fame in the shape of a
small volume with the caption, _The House of a Hundred Lights_, and
gravely subtitled, “A Psalm of Experience after Reading a Couplet of
Bidpai.”

Into this little book were packed some charming whimsicalities,
together with some graver thoughts—though not too grave—and some
fancies full tender. It had, however, sufficient resemblance to Omar
Khayyám to bring it under a Philistine indictment, though its point of
view was in reality very different. It was a clever bit of ruminating
upon the Where and How and Why and Whence, without attempting to
arrive at these mysteries, but rather to laugh at those who did. Mr.
Torrence is so artistic as to know that only the masters may go upon
the road in search of the Secret, and that the average wayfarer may
not hope to overtake it, but rather to suggest it by a hint now and
then. The philosophy of _The House of a Hundred Lights_ is in the main
of the jocular sort; and Bidpai of indefinite memory may well chuckle
to himself in some remote celestial corner that any couplet of his
should have been so potent as to produce it.

Mr. Torrence has not, that I can see, filched the fire from Omar’s
altar to kindle his hundred lights; this, for illustration, is pure
whimsicality, not fatalistic philosophy, as a similar thought would be
in Omar:

“Doubt everything,” the Thinker said,
When I was parch’d with Reason’s drought.
Said he, “Trust me, I’ve probed these things;
Have utter faith in me,—and doubt!”

Though the sky reel and Day dissolve,
And though a myriad suns fade out,
One thing of earth seems permanent
And founded on Belief: ’tis—Doubt.

But best of all is that quatrain in which he exonerates Providence:

What! doubt the Master Workman’s hand
Because my fleshly ills increase?
No; for there still remains one chance
That I am not His Masterpiece.

[Illustration: Ridgely Torrence]

If a cleverer bit of humor than that has been put into four lines, I
have not seen it, nor a more delightful epitome than this of the
inconsistent moralizing of youth:

Yet what have I to do with sweets
Like Love, or Wine, or Fame’s dear curse?
For I can do without all things
Except—except the universe.

Mr. Torrence’s quatrains penetrate into the nebulous dreams of youth,
or rather, interpret them, since _The House of a Hundred Lights_ was
reared in that charméd air, and carry one through the realm of
rainbows to the land of the gray light, to which every pilgrim comes
anon. Love receives its toll, the costliest and most precious as youth
fares on; and Mr. Torrence proves himself a poet in his picture of
this tribute-giving at the road-house of Love. Not only the visioning,
but the lucidity of the words, and their soft consonance, prove him
sensitive to the values of cadence and simplicity:

Last night I heard a wanton girl
Call softly down unto her lover,
Or call at least unto the shade
Of Cypress where she knew he’d hover.

Said she, “Come forth, my Perfect One;
The old bugs sleep and take their ease;
We shall have honey overmuch
Without the buzzing of the bees.”

Ah, Foolish Ones, I heard your vows
And whispers underneath the tree.
Her father is more wakeful than
She ever dreamed, for I—was he.

I saw them kissing in the shade
And knew the sum of all my lore:
God gave them Youth, God gave them Love,
And even God can give no more.

But much more delicate is this quatrain which follows the last, and
traces the unfolding of a young girl’s nature in the years that shape
the dream. It is a bit of genuine artistry:

At first, she loved nought else but flowers,
And then—she only loved the Rose;
And then—herself alone; and then—
She knew not what, but now—she knows.

This is a deftly fashioned lyric, rather than a stanza conjoined to
others, though, for that matter, the thread of conjunction in the poem
is slight; almost any of the quatrains might be detached without loss
of value save in atmosphere, as they are arranged with a certain
logical view and grow a bit more serious as they progress. We spoke,
for instance, of the path of youth leading to the grayer light, and
incidentally that Youth acquaints himself with pain as a wayfellow:

Yet even for Youth’s fevered blood
There is a certain balm here in
This maiden’s mouth: O sweet disease!
And happy, happy medicine!

And maiden, should these bitter tears
You shed be burdensome, know this:
There is a cure worth all the pain,
—To-night—beneath the moon—a kiss.

Girl, when he gives you kisses twain,
Use one, and let the other stay;
And hoard it, for moons die, red fades,
And you may need a kiss—some day.

No one will deny an individual grace of touch upon these strings. The
artistic value of the quatrains is unequal; they would bear weeding;
and there is a hint of spent impulse in the latter part of the volume,
though it may be only by virtue of the grouping that the cleverer
stanzas chance to be massed toward the front, as they were probably
not written in the order in which they appear. Here and there in the
latter part of the volume one comes upon some of Mr. Torrence’s most
unique fancies; and, too, if they do not always give one the same
pleasurable surprise, they are more thoughtful and the verities are in
them. Indeed, Mr. Torrence’s “Psalm of Experience” is not altogether
born of a happy _insouciance_; look a bit more closely and you
penetrate the mask, and a face looks out at you, like to your own
face, questioning and uncertain. We should be glad to quote more of
Mr. Torrence’s quatrains, but must look at _El Dorado_, his more
mature work, which won so kindly a reception from the critics and
public.

It would be idle to assert that _El Dorado_ is a great achievement,
but it is a fine achievement, and notably so as a first incursion into
a field beset with snares for the unwary. Into some of these Mr.
Torrence has fallen, but the majority of them he has avoided and has
proven his right to fare upon the way he has elected.

As to plot, one may say that _El Dorado_ is a moving tale, full of
incident and action, and sharply defining the characters before the
mind. The action is focused to a definite point in each scene, making
an effective climax, and in the subtler shading of the story, where
Perth, the released prisoner, mistaking the love of Beatrix d’Estrada
for the young officer of the expedition, thinks it a requital of his
own, Mr. Torrence has shown himself sensitive to the effects that are
psychological rather than objective; and, indeed, in this quality, as
evinced throughout the drama in the character of Perth, the essence of
Mr. Torrence’s art consists.

It is more or less an easy artifice for the dramatist to reduce his
hero to the verge of despair just as his heroine is conveniently near
to save him from leaping over a precipice; but artifice becomes art
when the impalpable emotions of a nature lost almost to its own
consciousness begin to be called from diffusion and given direction
and meaning. While the characterization of Perth is not altogether
free from strained sentiment, one recognizes in it a higher
achievement than went to the making of the more spectacular crises of
the play. The dramatic materials of _El Dorado_ are in the main
skilfully handled, and there is logical congruity in the situations as
they evolve, assuming the premise of the plot. As an acting play,
however, it would require the further introduction of women
characters, Beatrix sustaining alone, in its present cast, the
feminine element of the drama.

As to the play as literature, as poetry, there is much to commend, and
somewhat to deplore. If it remain as literature, it must contain
elements that transcend those of its action; if a well-developed plot
were literature, then many productions of the stage that are purely
ephemeral would take their place as works of art. Between the dramatic
and the theatrical there is a nice distinction, and only an artist may
wholly avoid the pitfalls of the latter. Mr. Torrence’s drama seems to
me to blend the two qualities. For illustration the following
outpouring of Coronado, when he returns for a last hour with Beatrix,
then disguising to follow his army, and finds her faithless to the
tryst, is purely melodramatic. The Friar Ubeda reminds him that the
trumpets call him, whereupon Coronado exclaims:

It is no call, but rather do their sounds
Lash me like brazen whips away from her.
They shriek two names to me, Honour and Hell;
They drive me with two words, Duty and Death.
These are the things that I can only find
Outside her arms.

In the same scene, however, occurs this fine passage, compact of
hopelessness, and having in it the whole heart-history of Perth, who
speaks it. He is urged by the friar to hasten that they may join the
expedition as it passes the walls:

PERTH. It would be useless.

UBEDA. In what way?

PERTH. If to go would be an ill,
I need not hasten; it will come to me.
And if a good, they will have gone too far;
I could not overtake them.

This passage recalls another memorably fine,—that in which Perth upon
his release would return to his dungeon, being oppressed by the light:

I seem to have to bear the sky’s whole arch,
Like Atlas, on my shoulders.

This is divining a sensation with subtle sympathy. But to return to
the consideration of the literature of Mr. Torrence’s drama from the
standpoint of his characters. Beatrix is a natural, elemental type of
girl, untroubled by subtleties. Impulse and will are one in her
understanding, and she counts it no shame to follow where they lead.
The love that exists between herself and Coronado discloses no great
emotional features, no complexities; but it is not strained nor
unnatural, and in the scene where Beatrix discloses her identity to
Coronado, as he in desperation at the failure of the quest for _El
Dorado_ is about to throw himself over the cliff,—while the situation
itself has elements of melodrama, the dialogue is wholly free from it,
and indeed contains some of the truest poetry in the play. Coronado,
with distraught fancy, thinks it the spirit of Beatrix by whom he is
delivered, and fears to approach her lest he dissolve the wraith,
whereupon Beatrix, among other reassurances, speaks these lovely
lines:—

Have the snow-textured arms of dreams these pulses?
Has the pale spirit of sleep a mouth like this?

The counter-passion of Mr. Torrence’s drama, in which its tragedy
lies, the passion of Perth for Beatrix, is so manifestly foredoomed on
the side of sentiment that one looks upon it purely from a
psychological standpoint, but from that standpoint it is handled so
skilfully that the dramatic feeling of the play centres chiefly in
this character. The Friar Ubeda is also strongly drawn, and one of the
motive forces of the drama. It is he who reveals to Perth that he has
a son born after his incarceration who is none other than the young
leader of the expedition, Don Francis Coronado, although his identity
is not revealed by the priest, and only the clew given that on his
hand is branded a crucifix, as a foolish penance for some boyhood sin.
Many of the finest passages of the play are spoken between Perth and
Ubeda.

The temptation to Shakespearize into which nearly all young dramatists
fall, Mr. Torrence has wholly avoided, nor has his verse any of the
grandiloquent strain that often mars dramatic poetry. It is at times
over-sustained, but is flexible and holds in the main to simplicity of
effect. Such a passage as the following shows it in its finest
quality. Here are feeling, consistent beauty, and dignity of word. The
lines are spoken by Perth in reply to Coronado’s parting injunction to
remember that the Font is there, pointing in the direction of their
quest:

O God, ’tis everywhere!
But where for me? Youth, love, or hope fulfilled,
Whatever dew distils from out its depths,
Sparkles till it has lured my eager lips
And then sinks back. ’Tis in his desolate heart—
And yet I may not drink. ’Tis in her eyes—
And yet my own cannot be cooled by it.
The wilderness of life is full of wells,
But each is barred and walled about and guarded.

* * * * *

The Source! Can it be true? Oh, may it not be?
May it not at last await me in that garden
To which we bleed our way through all this waste?—
One cup—some little chalice that will hold
One drop that will not shudder into mist
Till I have drained it.

Passages of this sort might be duplicated in _El Dorado_, were they
not too long to quote with the context necessary to them.

The passage cited above holds a deep suggestion in the lines:—

One drop that will not shudder into mist
Till I have drained it.

Here is human longing epitomized; and again the words in which
Coronado speaks, as he thinks, to the shade of Beatrix,—

No, I will no more strive to anything
And so dispel it,—

are subtly typical of the fear in all joy, the trembling dread to
grasp, lest it elude us. That, too, is a fine passage in which
Coronado replies to Perth, who seeks to cheer him with thought of the
Water of all Dreams:

Ah, that poor phantom Source! I never sought it.
I have found the thing called Youth too deadly bitter
To grasp at further tasting.

“The thing called Youth” is often “deadly bitter;” and Mr. Torrence
has well suggested it in the revulsion from hope to despair which
follows upon the knowledge that El Dorado is but a land of Dead-Sea
fruit. The atmosphere with which Mr. Torrence has invested the scene
where all are waiting for the dawn to lift and reveal the valley of
their desire is charged with mystery and portent; one becomes a tense,
breathless member of the group upon the cliff, and not a spectator.

Mr. Torrence is occasionally led into temptation, artistically
speaking, by the seduction of his imagination, and is carried a bit
beyond the point of discretion, as in this passage taken from the
scene where the expedition awaits the dawn on the morning when its
dream is expected to be realized. Perth and Coronado are looking to
the mist to lift. Perth speaks:

And now in that far edge, as though a seed
Were sown, there is a hint of budding gray,
A bud not wholly innocent of night,
And yet a color.

COR. But see, it dies!

PERTH. Yet now it blooms again,
Whiter, and with a rumor of hidden trumpets.

Buds in the common day do not usually bloom with a “rumor of hidden
trumpets.” In the same scene Coronado asks:

Can you not see
The gem which is the mother of all dawn?

PERTH. There is some gleam.

COR. It waits one moment yet
Before it thunders upon our blinded sight!

It is at least a new conception that _gems_ should _thunder_ upon
one’s _blinded sight_! In another scene Mr. Torrence has the
“devouring sun” deepen its “wormlike course” to the world’s edge.
Again, his heroine’s mouth is a little tremulous “from all the
troubled violets in her veins.” We are a bit uncertain, too, as to the
significance of a “throne-galled night;” but these are, after all,
minor matters when weighed with the prevailing grace and beauty of Mr.
Torrence’s lines.

The last act of _El Dorado_ has to my mind less of strength and beauty
than its predecessors, and dramatically one may question its
conception and construction. In a general study of Mr. Torrence’s plot
it seemed that the situations were all developed to the best
advantage, but an exception must, I think, be made in regard to the
last act. One of the vital requisites of drama is that the suspense of
the action shall hold to the end; there may be minor _dénouements_,
but the plot must not be so constructed that the element of mystery
shall have been eliminated ere the close, and this is exactly what has
been done in _El Dorado_. The two great scenes have already taken
place: _El Dorado_ has been proven a myth, and Beatrix has been united
to her lover; there remains but one thread to unravel, the love of
Perth for Beatrix; and of that the audience has already the full
knowledge and clew, having seen her rejoined to her lover. The only
motive of the last act is that the audience may see the effect upon
Perth when the revelation of his loss is made to him; and it is more
than a question whether a scene depending so entirely upon the
psychology of the situation could hold as a climax to the play.

There is a revelation, however, logically demanded by the premises of
the plot, in expectation of which the interest is held, and in whose
nonfulfilment I cannot but think that Mr. Torrence has lost the
opportunity for the most humanly true and effective climax of his
play,—the disclosure to Coronado of his parentage. Ubeda, earlier in
the drama, has enjoined Perth not to reveal his identity to his son,
lest it injure his public career; but in the hour when the supreme
loss has come, when Beatrix, as the wife of Coronado, rejoins the
homeward detachment of Perth and his friend, and the mortal stroke has
fallen,—then Ubeda should have declared the relationship and placed to
Perth’s lips ere he died the one draught that would not “shudder into
mist” ere he had drained it,—the draught of love from the heart of his
child. The bird of hope and light should hover just above the darkest
tragedy,—should brood above it with healing in its wings. This is
partially realized in the lines in which Mr. Torrence has chosen to
veil, and yet hint, the relationship which Coronado does not
understand:

PERTH. At last I see! always I seemed to know
That one day,—though I knew not when,—some hour,
I should behold and know it and possess it,—
The Font!

COR. No, it is snow and wine.

BEAT. He wanders!

PERTH. I had not thought to find it so at last,
Yet here, and here alone, it has arisen
Within these two—my only youth! Yes—now!
Upon this hour and place at last! The Source!
It is a barren place—yet flowers are here,
Those which for certain days I seemed to lose;
A desolate tender fatherhood has here
Found growth, and bears, but all too piteously,
A futile bud.

The impression left upon one by _El Dorado_ is that of poetic
distinction, and the drama in its character drawing, plot and action
is an augury of finer possibilities in the same branch of art.