[Illustration: STEPHEN PHILLIPS.]
Before producing the plays for which he is known, he wrote some narrative and lyric verse. Marpessa (1890), a blank verse poem, is a beautiful treatment of the old Greek myth, in which Apollo, the god, and Idas, the mortal, woo Marpessa. Marlowe might have written the lines in which Apollo promises to take her to a home above the world, where movement is ecstasy and repose is thrilling. In some of his non-dramatic poems, Christ in Hades (1896), Cities of Hell (1907), and The New Inferno (1896), Phillips shows how the subject of life and punishment after death attracts him.
With the appearance of his Paolo and Francesca in 1899, the poetic drama seemed phoenix-like to arise from its ashes. Tennyson and Browning had failed to write successful plays. In fact, since the death of Dryden, poetry and drama had seemed to be afraid to approach each other. Phillips effected at least a temporary union. His several plays have distinctly dramatic qualities and many passages of poetic beauty. From both a dramatic and a poetic point of view, Paolo and Francesca is Phillips’s best play. Its dramatic values lie chiefly in its power to create and sustain a sense of something definitely progressing toward a certain point. The poetic elements of the play consist in the beauty of atmosphere and the charm of the lines. Giovanni Malatesta, the ugly tyrant of Rimini, being at war when his marriage draws near, sends his young brother Paolo to escort Francesca to Rimini. On the journey Paolo and Francesca fall in love with each other. When Giovanni discovers this, his jealous hand slays them. To such a tragic climax, Phillips drives steadily onward from the first scene, thus focusing the interest on a concrete dramatic situation.
Herod (1900) is a drama of ambition versus love. Herod, the great historic king of the Jews, though passionately in love with his wife Mariamne, sacrifices her brother Aristobulus to his suspicions, fearing that this young prince, the last of the Maccabees, may supplant him on the throne. This sacrifice, prompted by evil counselors, results in a train of tragic episodes, including Mariamne’s death and Herod’s madness. The lines in which Herod speaks of thinking in gold and dreaming in silver call to mind the hyperbole and music of Marlowe’s mighty line.
Ulysses (1902), more of a panorama than a play, is founded on the Homeric story. Its scenes are laid in Olympus, in Hades, on Calypso’s isle, and finally in Ithaca. Calypso tries to retain Ulysses upon her isle, beautiful—
“With sward of parsley and of violet
And poplars shimmering in a silvery dream."
He struggles against her enchantment, returns home, finds his wife surrounded by her suitors, joins in their bow-drawing contest, and, in a most exciting and dramatic scene, surpasses all rivals and claims his faithful, beautiful Penelope.