The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories
I have a project to suggest. But first I will write a chapter of introduction.
I have just been witnessing a remarkable play, here at the Burg Theatre in Vienna. I do
not know of any play that much resembles it. In fact, it is such a departure from the
common laws of the drama that the name 'play' doesn't seem to fit it quite snugly.
However, whatever else it may be, it is in any case a great and stately metaphysical
poem, and deeply fascinating. 'Deeply fascinating' is the right term: for the audience sat
four hours and five minutes without thrice breaking into applause, except at the close of
each act; sat rapt and silent-- fascinated. This piece is 'The Master of Palmyra.' It is
twenty years old; yet I doubt if you have ever heard of it. It is by Wilbrandt, and is his
masterpiece and the work which is to make his name permanent in German literature. It
has never been played anywhere except in Berlin and in the great Burg Theatre in
Vienna. Yet whenever it is put on the stage it packs the house, and the free list is
suspended. I know people who have seem it ten times; they know the most of it by heart;
they do not tire of it; and they say they shall still be quite willing to go and sit under its
spell whenever they get the opportunity.
There is a dash of metempsychosis in it--and it is the strength of the piece. The play gave
me the sense of the passage of a dimly connected procession of dream-pictures. The
scene of it is Palmyra in Roman times. It covers a wide stretch of time--I don't know how
many years--and in the course of it the chief actress is reincarnated several times: four
times she is a more or less young woman, and once she is a lad. In the first act she is Zoe-
-a Christian girl who has wandered across the desert from Damascus to try to Christianise
the Zeus-worshipping pagans of Palmyra. In this character she is wholly spiritual, a
religious enthusiast, a devotee who covets martyrdom--and gets it.
After many years she appears in the second act as Phoebe, a graceful and beautiful young
light-o'-love from Rome, whose soul is all for the shows and luxuries and delights of this
life--a dainty and capricious feather- head, a creature of shower and sunshine, a spoiled
child, but a charming one. In the third act, after an interval of many years, she reappears
as Persida, mother of a daughter who is in the fresh bloom of youth. She is now a sort of
combination of her two earlier selves: in religious loyalty and subjection she is Zoe: in
triviality of character and shallowness of judgement--together with a touch of vanity in
dress--she is Phoebe.
After a lapse of years she appears in the fourth act as Nymphas, a beautiful boy, in whose
character the previous incarnations are engagingly mixed.
And after another stretch of years all these heredities are joined in the Zenobia of the fifth
act--a person of gravity, dignity, sweetness, with a heart filled with compassion for all
who suffer, and a hand prompt to put into practical form the heart's benignant impulses.