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Conrad Aiken Revivifies "Mr. Arcularis"

MR. ARCULARIS, A Play by Conrad Aiken '11; Harvard University Press; 83 pp.; $2.75.

By John A. Pope

In his introduction to this dramatized version of Mr. Arcularis, Conrad Aiken traces its origins back to his remembrance of a small, shabby man, met on an Atlantic liner many years ago. This man was the real Mr. Arcularis, of whom Aiken says, "there was something pathetically indrawn and remote about him; he talked little to me or to anyone else... and almost from the outset I thought of him as some how having the air of a somnambulist, a sleepwalker." From the suggestion offered by this contact with a real person has grown, during the intervening years, a character who walks among the living in a spiritual sleep, passes through redemption in a dream voyage, and into physical death before the eyes of the audience.

It may be because he represents the final distillation of some of Aiken's pet ideas that Mr. Arcularis the person has so little impact on the reader. And yet the apparent thinness and elusiveness of the character are reasonable enough in the context of the play. As the curtain rises. Mr. Arcularis lies on the operating table in a surgical amphitheater, surrounded by doctors and nurses and watched by unseen medical students. Then Mr. Arcularis drifts into his ether dream, a strange, cold, ocean voyage which makes up the heart of the play. Finally in the growing chill and the gradual slowing of the ships engines the scene returns to the operating room and the death of Mr. Arcularis.

The Dream Voyage

And so it is appropriate enough that in the dream voyage of a dying man upon the operating table there should be a remoteness to the characters, a fleeting vaporousness that makes orientation in time and space more and more difficult. If this results in some loss of humanity in the drama, it creates an atmosphere most congenial to the brilliantly clear play of some of Aiken's ideas--the loneliness of a human being who feels he has been set off from his fellows by an experience for which many of us will find a counterpart in our own lives.

There is much in this play to delight the seeker after hidden meanings, for Aiken ignores neither symbols nor that interrelation of characters and events which suggests more than appears on the surface. The surgeon who bends over Arcularis as he lies on the operation table reappears as another passenger on the dream voyage. And this passenger is the owner of the chisel which Arcularis likens to a scalpel, and with which he tries in his sleep to break open the coffin in the ship's refrigeration room, the coffin which he comes to realize contains his own corpse. Other characters from the hospital scene reappear on the ship: the gentle, inefficient nurse, as Arcularis' first serious love; the anesthetist as a violinist; the house surgeon as a minister. There is a free field for inference and speculation.

Analysis Unnecessary

But a careful analytical examination of the play, while possibly good for intellectual entertainment, is unnecessary. It is pervaded strongly with the feeling of the basic themes that are important to its author: crippling malaise of the spirit, loneliness, cold and death. And in the midst of this chilling futility there comes finally a moment of affirmation, a statement that despite the horror of life the gifts of love, understanding and forgiveness are enough.

Arcularis' life has been drained of warmth by a moment of childhood shock: the discovery of the drowned bodies of his beautiful young mother and his uncle who was her lover. But now, on the dream voyage, the mother and the uncle reappear, and at the close of his life he is again suddenly aware in a new way of her forgotten youth and beauty.

Absolution of Horror

Arcularis speaks to her: "How beautiful you were, Mother--how beautiful you are! ... And, least of all, what I learned in that moment of icy heartbreak--no, I wouldn't have wanted to miss that. For isn't that the very thing we were put here to learn? ...--if we know that, and can bear it, we know everything. Wonderful, that moment, when the absolute zero invades the soul, but as if with the soul's permission: when you see, in a single instant, no matter whether it comes early or late, what a poor, blind, broken trifle of suffering and nonsense and delight a whole lifetime can be. And yet, would not have it otherwise. It's the moment of our absolution."

In this moment of redemption, as he bids goodbye to his dead mother, Arcularis for the first time accepts death as the end of life: "Good night, May the dark be good to you, and all darkness to all men." And in the operating room a few minutes later the heart of Mr. Arcularis stops.

Horror Triumphant

Yet this affirmation, the redemption through pity and understanding, somehow lacks force. The horrifying sense of loneliness and the oncoming of death the permeation of all things with death, comes to the reader more strongly. And this is coupled with a simultaneous awareness of how desperately rare is the gift of compassion. Before the disinterested eyes of the medical students, who will later be quizzed on the operation, the life on which the play has been built ceases. And an officious nurse remarks, as she draws a sheet across the dead face, "What a pity. Such a charming man."

The play has been very carefully and very excellently put together, and if well-produced it should have a great deal of power. But it will be the power to child and frighten, for there is not enough humanity in it to produce the tears that should melt Aiken's icicles.

The Lack of Conviction

A comparison with O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night best illustrates the underlying spiritual weakness of Mr. Arcularis. The broken hearts of O'Neill's play still overflow with their own power over both life and death; even in sordid recrimination and disillusionment there is the hint of victory. In Aiken's play the affirmation lacks conviction; it is beautiful but momentary, and cannot exist as one with the horrors. If Aiken had meant to say this--if this is something to say--his play would be successful in every respect. I do not believe he did mean to say it.

Mr. Arcularis is still gripping throughout, and often beautiful. It is also extremely frightening. Despite its imbalance it is excellent reading, and should make good theatre. If Aiken does not give all we suspect he feels, he gives us at least a truly thoughtful tale.

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