Sunday, September 25, 2016


Satan the Waster was Vernon Lee’s major literary project throughout World War One.  Lee continued to shape the drama that included the Ballet of the Nations so that her philosophy about war was very clearly stated. Her position on the war was not the majority view. As an internationalist and pacifist, patriotism was not a principle she upheld. She knew her ideas were not likely to be broadly accepted, but hoped they could influence enough people to help prevent future wars.

Ballet of the Nations had in 1915 offended many of her friends since they believed her attitude was one of “aloofness.”  She did not think and act like a citizen of a particular country. Also she did not advocate in this piece for some of the issues she actually supported. One example is that although she supported women’s suffrage, she did not include it in the “Ballet.”

The response to the 1920 release of the book Satan the Waster did not result in positive reviews from the London print media.  The Times Literary Supplement article titled “The Decay of Satire” considered it a “transparent artifice of a philosophic war trilogy.” The article further considered it a failure in several areas and called it “an unconvincing fable. . . .”  It also claimed: “Her satire fails because never from beginning to end can the reader believe in it. It is merely an expression of her opinions in a very artificial form; . . .”   Other reviewers believed that since it was designated as a work for the stage they labelled it “unplayable.” It appears that nearly every reviewer found a different fault to reveal.  Fortunately for Vernon Lee, she had left England in 1919 and returned to her home in Italy.

George Bernard Shaw reviewed Satan the Waster in The Nation dated September 18, 1920.  Many individuals who cite this review regard it as the only favorable mention of Lee’s anti-war drama. Shaw was praising Lee’s work and her talents while he actually was targeting England’s current leader Lloyd George.  Shaw addressed George’s weaknesses at length in this review.  Richard Cary’s article titled “Shaw Reviews Satan the Waster” in the June, 1971 issue of Colby Library Quarterly, pages 335-343 clearly discusses Shaw’s praise bestowed on Lee and the drama as well as the true objective of the review. It is interesting and worth a read. 
I did not mention in my previous post the style of Satan the Waster.  It is a combination of genres, historic periods and ideas from classical times to 1920. One quickly recognizes Lee’s sweep of history and compilation of various styles. The drama contains elements of a masque, satire, allegory, morality and tragedy.

There is music to support the dancing while there is different music for singing.  Sometimes these two elements simultaneously play against each other and illustrate an emotional struggle between the ideas Lee is presenting in those moments. An example occurs during the Ballet segment in Act II.  Following DEATH’s speech ending on page 51, “The Orchestra resumes, and the dancing gets more complicated. No one speaks for a minute or so, till the Muse, erect by Satan’s side, begins once more her writing and reciting.” The Ballet continues throughout this sequence and “the fireworks go on with all kinds of variations.”  The voice of HEROISM, a youthful and very pure tenor, is heard above the din of the Orchestra, singing the Marseillaise to the accompaniment of his drum.” 

The different visual arts that Lee utilized from various periods are represented, particularly in the descriptions for costumes. Lee also required the use of new innovations for specific moments in the production for the purpose of creating special theatrical effects.  These include film and gramophone. Lee envisioned a production style that anticipated Epic Theatre.  The script was as thoroughly conceived for its visual and auditory values as it was for its philosophical position. 

During 1930 the John Lane Company issued a reprint of Satan the Waster. There was a review of Satan the Waster in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on April 15, 1930:
            In 1920 too near to the war to bear this scathing analyses of the human
            passions which produced it to see relentlessly exposed the vices and the
            follies which masqueraded as virtues.  It was uncomfortable to 
            our individual no less than our national self-esteem.                                                                                
Later in the review the author, who signed the column H.R., stated: “the heresies of Satan the Waster have turned to commonplace now.”   
Vernon Lee’s Satan the Waster has not been forgotten. The drama and it author have been recognized in a number of relatively recent publications. The first one is Vernon Lee by Peter Gunn published by Oxford University Press (1964); this is followed by Women’s Fiction and the Great War edited by Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate published by Clarendon Press (1997); Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography by Vineta Colby published by University of Virginia Press (2003); Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War by Patrick Wright published by Oxford Press (2007) plus Conflict, Nationhood and Corporeality in Modern Literature by P. Rau, Chapter 2 titled “Violence and the Pacifist Body in Vernon Lee’s The Ballet of the Nation” by Patricia Pulham and published by Palgrave MacMillan (2010).

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