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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VII. Tourneur and Webster

§ 2. Tourneur’s two Tragedies

We pass at once to the two dramas, for it is by these alone that Tourneur survives. A question has been raised as to the relative priority of their composition. The order of publication makes a presumption in favour of The Revengers Tragoedie; but it is a presumption which might easily yield to substantial arguments on the other side. The only argument, however, which has been brought forward is the inferiority, or, as it has been called, the “immaturity,” of The Atheist’s Tragedie. Such an argument is manifestly perilous and, if applied to the works of other writers, would lead to curious results. On the other side must be set the fact that The Revengers Tragoedie, though it abounds in striking passages and scenes, is singularly lacking in originality of conception; that it belongs to a type of tragedy which had been in vogue for many years before its appearance; that, in fact, it is a rearrangement of the material already treated by Marston in Antonios Revenge (1602). The Atheist’s Tragedie, on the other hand, though, doubtless, inferior in some respects, is strikingly original in its central conception. And it would seem improbable that, after following his own path with much boldness, the dramatist should, in a later play, have fallen back obediently into the well worn rut. The same conclusion is suggested by the metre, which, in The Revengers Tragoedie, is exceptionally regular, while, in The Atheist’s Tragedie, it is marked by what can only be called an abuse of the light endings which abound in the later plays of Shakespeare. We have other grounds for saying that Tourneur was a zealous student of Shakespeare; and it is surely more natural to suppose that, after the example of his master, he passed from the stricter to the looser system, than from the looser to the stricter. The point is by no means certain. On the whole, however, it would appear likely that the order of publication is, also, the order of composition; in other words, that The Revengers Tragoedie was written in or before 1607, and that The Atheist’s Tragedie falls some time between it and 1611.

Neither play can be said to show much trace of dramatic power. The plots are poor in themselves, and one of them is largely borrowed. The characters are, at best, little more than types; and, in one instance, at any rate, the revenger’s mother, the type is hardly improved by an incredible conversion. The most original character in the whole gallery is that of D’Amville, the atheist. But even he has a fatal resemblance to the Machiavellian monster who, from the time of Kyd and Marlowe, had been a familiar figure to the Elizabethan playgoer. The other characters are either puppets or incarnate abstractions of the various virtues and vices. The wanton personages of The Atheist’s Tragedie are frankly caricatures. It is as poet that Tourneur claims our attention: a poet whose imagination is poisoned by the sense of universal vanity and corruption, but who lights up this festering material with flashes of high genius, and who is capable, at rare moments, of rising to visions of true beauty, and even grace: “To have her train borne up, and her soul Trail in the dirt” is an instance of the one; the alleged discovery of Charlemont’s body by Borachio, of the other. And, to the former, at any rate, many parallels could be brought. His imagination needed a dramatic matter to kindle it; but, when kindled, it followed its own path and paid little heed to any but the purely formal requirements of the drama. To him, a tragedy was an outlet for the expression of his bitter judgment on man and his essentially gloomy view of human life. To this, all personages, all incidents, are subordinated. Of this, all that is memorable in his dramas is the imaginative symbol. In these points, he presents a certain analogy to Webster, but an analogy which, at the same time, is a faint reflection and a caricature.