The Woodland Gods


The Woodland Gods


An essay examining the importance of stage design, particularly open-air theaters. It ends with an analysis of Edward William Godwin's production of Shakespeare's As You Like It.


Campbell, Janey Sevilla


November 1888


essay (art)


pp. 1–7


It has been said that the artist is the man who recognises art in Nature, the man who knows what is the
natural material capable of being artistically treated, and where it is to be found; for art can only be exercised under conditions, and to such conditions it is not always in Nature's power to conform. The conditions, for example, of dramatic art are imitative, as are those of all other arts, yet the drama can never be strictly said to be imitative of Nature, but only representative. To transfer life to the boards of the theatre demands a just appreciation of the difference between real and dramatic conditions; so that the spectator who goes to the play and (as many spectators do) institutes a direct comparison between the actor and the man, criticises on a false basis, and does not appreciate the artistic conditions.

When I first thought of open-air plays it was repeatedly said to me that art and Nature could not be
brought into contact without destroying dramatic effect; but I considered that there were certain plays, of which the chief elements and surroundings were so eminently natural, that open-air representation not only would not weaken, but would rather strengthen, their dramatic effect. With this belief the forest scenes from As You Like It were chosen for three open-air presentations, and were given at Coombe, in Surrey, in July, 1884, and repeated in May, 1885, followed in June and July by seven presentations of Fletcher's pastoral, The Faithfull Sheperdesse, as adapted by Godwin, and by three presentations in July, 1886, of Fair Rosamund, adapted by Godwin from Lord Tennyson's “Becket." No one was more conscious than Shakespeare of the difficulties of conveying to the minds of an audience, through the
artificial medium of scenic representation, any adequate image of the realities of life: —

“Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France, or may we cram
"Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agmoourt?"* (Chorus, Henry V., Act I)

Of course not, and so the audience is asked not to demand too much, but to "eke out the performance with their minds;" for the chorus to the fourth act, speaking of the battle itself, says: —

“And so our scene must to the battle fly,
Where (O for pity !) we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt."

Nor can it be said that, with all the resources of scenic invention which the modem stage-manager has at
command, this difficulty is capable of being satisfactorily surmounted. Rather it must be confessed that the more we encumber the stage with pseudo-realistic accessories the more do we challenge comparison with Nature herself, and we make allowance for the scene-painter's shortcomings with more difficulty than for those of the actor, because there is not one in a million of us who understands the technicalities of the scene-painter's art.

The representations of the Attic theatre, it may be urged, were unrealistic. Masks concealed the countenance of the actor, stilts magnified his stature, robes shrouded his pei-son, a monotonous cadence prevailed in his delivery. But we could no longer be satisfied with types, however beautifully they were clothed and presented. We demand complexity, we demand sympathy, we demand character, we demand Nature. It is surely affectation to argue from the opposite standpoint that because acting is an artificial presentation of certain phases of life, and not life itself, so likewise must the environment of the actor be artificial. Bather it should be said that such artificiality handicaps the display of the actor's genius; for inasmuch as the finest acting makes the spectator forget that it is art, it follows that the more
natural the acting the more patent is the discord with artificial surroundings. Where the environment of the
actor is artificial, artificial acting may pass current. But Nature is the test, the touchstone; she shows up what is false, what is exaggerated, what is theatrical. She is the ever-present standard.

In the England of to-day sensational realism has reached its zenith. In the form dramatic art takes on
the theatrical stage we see, for the most part, the realism of the common-place, the every-day life which, whether sensational or not, appeals in no way to our sense of beauty. On the pastoral stage the advantage gained is on the side of the romantic drama, for with such a setting we may pass from the realisation of the actual to the realisation of the ideal Indeed, open-air acting means either this or nothing. Here Nature challenges the artist; it is the chance for the true artist, be he dilettante- professional or professional-amateur. The world is a great deal too thick with current writing on art, but it is plain that as long as there is discredit attached to the words "amateur" and "dilettante" in art-criticism, there
must be a dead-lock; for what is the "amateur" but he who has the "amor " or love of art, the "dilettante"
but he who has "diletto" or pleasure in art? Every work of art also suggests its own mode of presentation, just as every work of art suggests its own form of criticism, and both in creation and in criticism what is essential is freedom of mood. The ordinary stage-manager is forced more or less to mould (perhaps to mutilate) a work of art to suit preconceived ideas and old traditions; the director of the natural stage (given that he chooses a suitable setting for his representation), to be successful, must avoid these customary stage conventions.

Before entering more deeply into this question, it is well that a few words should be said about our director — the director of " The Pastoral Players." In the world of art, the deep dramatic insight and many-sided artistic knowledge of Godwin was, we all know, unerring. His fine discernment, crowned by knowledge, showed in everything he touched. It was evident to this great spirit (now moved into the fairer sunlight) that art demands a special treatment when brought into contact with Nature, just as Nature demands a special treatment when confronted with art, and we cannot but lament with Mr. W. G. Wills in his tender elegy, "genius flown, starved by a tasteless age, and unfulfilled," and with the author of "Helena in Troas" in his memorial sonnet : —

''A man of men, born to be genial king
By frank election of the artist kind,
Attempting all things, and on everything
Setting the signet of a master-mind.
What others dreamed amiss, he did aright;
His dreams were visions of art’s golden age;
Yet, self-betrayed, he fell in fortune’s spite,
His royal birthright sold for scanty wage.
The best of comrades, winning old and young
With keen audacious charm, dandling the fool
That pleased his humour, but with scathing tongue
For blatant pedants of the bungler school.
They tell me he had faults; I know of one —
Dying too soon he left his best undone.”'

A "man of men" indeed he was, and with that fine generosity that always accompanies true genius. It has
been well said of him that "what he gave his age was a spirit to inform the work of others, a spirit which will grow, and spread and manifest itself in multitudinous forms of beauty." When he wrote of contemporary art, that most of it was "a mead of wild errors," it was because he set his ideal so exclusively among the Greek gods. Of workmanship perfected, he saw only the shield of Achilles wrought by the glorious lame god Hephaistos. No man ever lived with greater singleness of purpose. To create beautiful things for the mere sake of their loveliness, this was his object; not wealth, not position, not fame even. Yet fame surely shall be his, for the muses taught him, and the mother of the muses had care for him. Poet of architects, and architect of all the arts, he possessed that rare gift, a feeling for the very essence of Beauty wherever and whenever it was to be found.

The arts seemed to yield their secrets to him, and for him Nature opened her scroll, while with exquisite spirit of choice, and delicate tact of omission, he would, from both these worlds of wonder, select all congruous elements of beauty and of strength, and combine them into works of perfect symmetry and right proportion. Like the strength of Michael Angelo, his strength lay in that he always worked from some great conscious rest, and we know that the parallels he ruled were always trustworthy. In his last creative production, the presentation of Helena in Troas, we saw a manifestation of the remarkable power to which he had attained, though, indeed, he left his best undone. From the first moment of entering the theatre, as he had fashioned it, a sense of beauty, hushed and serene, stole over the spectator, such as one might fancy had never been felt since Greeks listened to the plays of Euripides. As the tragedy unfolded itself (dawn growing into noonday, and noon waning into night), the hush continued and grew more intense, for the rhythmical movements of the chorus made the story come and go like a shadow of fate, seen in clear water or in a crystal sphere — like the reverie of some god in the soul that dreams of a god's ways. With
the death of Paris, and Helen's last sad words, the play was not over. When, like figures on a marble frieze, the band of white-robed maidens wound through the twilight past the altar of Dionysus, and one by one in slow procession climbed the steps, and passed away, the audience were absolutely stilled in their excitement All minds were held in strong emotion as by the voice of some god which, "when ceased, men still stood fixed to hear." The pure keynote of beauty was again struck, and, line and colour taking the place of language, the play ultimately reverted to that plastic ideal which lies at the basis of all
Greek art.

In the presentation of The Faithfull Shepherdesse and As You Like It Godwin's combined delicacy and strength were equally shown. It seemed that with him the Woodland Gods (the Bird-Gods themselves) were in hidden sympathy, and that from their hiding places in oak and fern they breathed and piped their secrets to his inmost soul, his keen eye and quick ear catching their slightest and subtlest
suggestions, his large understanding seizing at once their mode in the garden of unity. Fletcher's pastoral he truly saw was no mere theatric play, but a parable rather, and a pageant: a parable where the thoughts and moods of our nature take visible form, put on comely attire, and appear before us; a pageant through
which the gracious old Arcadian life can, in an English woodland, stir again, and, while retaining its Greek
clearness of outline, yet gain something from the medieval magic of colour and from the Northern temper
of romance.

The composition of stage effect and the art of acting generally, whether in-doors or out-doors, meant for his wonderful genius what the art of musical composition meant for the wonderful genius of Wagner — it meant growth, originality, freedom from tradition. As art-director of our natural stage, he urged more than ever on the actor (whether that actor occupied the principal rôle, or that of the silent super) the necessity that the ordinary technique of the stage must be held by him subordinate, and sacrificed to pictorial and realistic effect. The conventional strut, the lover's speech (addressed wholly or in part to the audience, instead of to the object of his passion), the strange monotonous system of intoning blank verse (sacrificing entirely to cadence the more important quality of sense) — all this, where and when mother Nature is herself pressed into the service of the players, Godwin justly held as heresy. It was Nature, he said, who must be consulted, because her suggestions of method are not less varied and infinite than are her changes of mood — "concord in discord, lines of differing method meeting in one full centre of delight." This was the high art-standard he made for, in the woodland pictures of moving sound and colour which he created; he assimilated art to Nature, and Nature to art.

With regard to material or scenic treatment, as I have said elsewhere, in my essay on "Rainbow Music,'' "Nature is jealous of line, of hue, and even of sound; she insists that wherever art is confronted with
her, it shall partake of her own essence." Therefore those artificial lines and dyes, those sounds which are in accord with a certain given condition of Nature, are alone admissible; she exacts of them that they shall enhance her own beauty by contrast or by harmony.

So also psychologically and dramatically, if we are to live and move with our heroes and heroines in a pastoral story, joy with their joys and weep with their sorrows, our sympathies must be the more awakened and intensified through Nature's own operation ; for, as si)ectators, we are wrought upon from without as well as from within, subjected to the same psychological influences which are felt unconsciously by the players themselves (pace Diderot), and which must also have been felt by the people whose lives and characters they represent. Players and spectators alike cannot but be carried into a realisation of actual pastoral life while Nature's vibrating accompaniment speaks to them in the lisp of leaves and "the murmur that springs from the growing of grass," in the song of birds, and in all the many outward symbols of her ceaselessly pulsating life. In effect, it is through the feelings she inspires, under certain conditions of harmony, that the sensitive spectator is moved to a delight which finds its expression in tears. Nature is then as the voice of the beloved, singing to one alone. Breathing above all else of the woods, of song-birds, and wild flowers are these most beautiful scenes in As You Like It, where indeed are found" tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” And, in truth, one can understand that the only possible realisation of such naturalistic beauty is to be sought in the endeavour to make it one with that Nature from which it descended, and in which
alone it could find its counterpart.

This was the conviction that forced itself upon me when first I saw As You Like It within the walls of the theatre. That a certain element of discord with the realistic word-painting of Shakespeare should be too often painfully evident in the theatre is not to be wondered at, and if we regard the art of Shakespeare from this naturalistic standpoint we can perceive the basis of reasoning from which spring the sentiments often expressed against all representations of Shakespeare's plays. From this point of view, indeed the expression of such sentiment loses that ring of mere conventional affectation, with which it is apt to strike the ear of the Shakespearean enthusiast.

At the representations of our "forest scenes," the fact that many among the more observant spectators confessed to finding themselves the only notes out of tune with the natural surroundings, is perhaps the best proof that a union of art with Nature was then and there consummated. The audience really became the only external conventionality which appeared out of place, because Nature had not absorbed them, as it were, and made them her own. Having established the fact that we were treating with the wood and its natural surroundings as we found them, it would be an impertinence to enter into a description of natural effects that changed with every hour of the day. Some regard was had to the selection of the spot, so that the axis of the auditorium and natural stage should fall in such a manner as to make the most of the trees, glades, background, and landscape. To any one not present the thought would naturally occur that the sides (technically known as wings on the stage) would be exposed, and that either exits and entrances would seem unnatural, or that long pauses would have to be introduced in the action of the pieca This, however, was overcome by taking advantage of the circumstances of the locality.

As regards the costume, as the play distinctly refers to a time when there were dukedoms in France, the style of dress was that in use prior to the absorption of the Duchy of Brittany by the Crown, therefore before A.D. 1483. The rich and picturesque apparel in vogue during the ten or twenty years preceding this was the model which guided us. It was acknowledged on all sides that the banished Duke, the nobles, the foresters, and the shepherds were somehow in place; that the high hunting-boots and by-cocket caps, the dull velvets and worn leather, the newer habits of those “young gentlemen of estate" who daily sought the exiled lords to hunt with them, the hooded cape, the belted tunic, and the bow and spear, were at home among these high trees and chequered glades. As it was the love of the beautiful which led to the inception, no discordant note of colour was struck out of harmony with Nature's key in which we played; for each tone of colour introduced had been borrowed from Nature's own woodland hues. The dresses of Rosalind and Celia struck the bright russet tones of bracken and bark; Orlando's, the mellowed tinge of golden-greens which belongs to dead leaves and ferns ; while Phebe, tripping along in the hues of the violet or heart's-ease, seemed a flower bom of the woods ; and so on through the varied and subdued forest-tones, notes were struck in the different impersonations, all resolving into one perfect harmony.

On Rosalind, frequently pronounced one of the most charming of Shakespeare's heroines, much has been written. Orlando has been neglected. Yet if he is of comparatively less importance, measured by his less voluble flow of speech, there is, nevertheless, a poetry about his character which has a fascination peculiarly its own, and, contrasted with the sparkling vivacity of Rosalind, its mellow light appears more dreamily poetical.

It seems remarkable that whilst Hamlet, Romeo, even Shylock, and many other male Shakespearean characters have been played by women, we do not hear that Orlando has ever been included in the number; yet, on reading the part, one can feel that it might have been written for one of those youths who in Shakespeare's time played female characters, for it will be remembered that it was not till the reign of Charles II that women began to show upon the stage. A youth who had probably played the parts of Rosalind, Imogen, and Viola, played amongst his latest the part of this romantic lover. Orlando is essentially one who is still boyish enough to play at love, and yet man enough under extremity to draw his sword upon a band of robbers.
"Inland bred, knowing some nurture," he blushes when he sees how his impatience has led him into the
error of mistaking cultivated folk for savages because of their surroundings. He “puts on" the countenance of stem commandment, an assumption quite foreign to his nature, and this he is only too glad to drop at the slightest sign of kindness or gentleness. This trait never appears again. Orlando knows “what 't is to pity and be pitied," for he has been followed for himself alone by one fast-fading life that limps after him in pure love, and in the tender solicitude he bestows on that faithful follower we see a further development of a child's or a woman's gentleness.

The circumstances set forth in the beginning of the play represent him as one over whose home (bright in the early days, when his father. Sir Rowland du Bois, was the honoured friend of the reigning duke) had come not only the sorrow of death, but the cloud of poverty. His father's powerful friend banished, Rosalind banished, his own life plotted against by Oliver, his overbearing brother— all this has tended to overlay his mind with a tinge of melancholy. He goes forth to seek his fortunes with his faithful old servant, quite the saddest youth in all Shakespeare's plays. His wild forest-life and discovery of the banished Duke and his lords do not remove his melancholy, but seem to develop in him a nobler and wider kind of sympathy; for in them he meets that humanity he has hungered for. In seeing their simple life, in realising the adversity that has befallen his father's once powerful friend, and in listening to the last words of Amiens' song, he too feels that "we are not all alone unhappy," and that there are "more woeful pageants than the scene wherein we play." As the days go by, there is something more than home (comprehensive as the term was three centuries ago) that he misses. Adam had probably died, for we hear no more of him; and now his heart and mind are swayed in ideal intensity of love for Rosalind. Not an evening, “when light thickens and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood," but memories of her who had placed the chain around his neck throng in upon him. He is alive to the brevity of time, to its violated vows ; but even thoughts like these he transfigures by the loved name, which he appends to every sentence, whether on brain or bark. The intensity with which he broods over the ideal Rosalind blinds him when
the actual Rosalind comes before him in the forest; he sees in her a likeness to his Rosalind, but a likeness only, because the image which he has cherished within him has developed only the beauty, the good of her, and it is consequently not the girl who, charming and lovable though she was, had still a measure of the imperfection of humanity about her.

The character of Orlando gathers relief from the lines of wit and repartee that scintillate through it, like
silver threads in a purple woof; witness his encounter with Jacques. And yet it is curious to find how in this
most joyous of plays melancholy is interwoven (not alone in one of its characters, but more or less in all) — the melancholy, that is, of introspective contemplation; for in Shakespeare's day (in the sixteenth or seventeenth century) we must remember that melancholy implied not at all the fashionable ennui and affected pessimism of the present day, but rather such a spirit as is pictured in Dürer's "Melancholia," which jmrtrays not sorrow, but the image of thought brooding over the mystery of things. The Duke, Amiens, Silvius, occasionally Rosalind herself (though she contrasts in this respect with Orlando), and especially Jaques, sound each and all a different note in this divine chord of melancholy. A contemporary writer has said of the parables of the New Testament that they are not so much illustrative of different characters as of one character in different moods. So we may say of the characters in As You Like It
that they are one and all illustrative of the different moods of Nature, and that they consort with the natural surroundings in which the gi-eatest of all dramatists has placed them. Can we be wrong, then, in utilising Nature to illustrate herself?