King Arthur (also King Arthur: A Drama in a Prologue and Four Acts) was a play by Joseph Comyns Carr produced by Henry Irving at the London Lyceum Theater in 1895. At the time that Irving had approached him about the job, Carr was specializing in Pre-Raphaelite art as the director of the Grosvenor Gallery. Carr had at his disposal a vast array of Arthurian literature on which he could base his story. In the end, though, Carr drew almost exclusively from Sir Thomas Malory's and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's works in combination with his own imaginative adjustments to complete the drama. In essence, Carr was attempting to wrap all of the separate Arthurian tales into one drama, which would represent the vast Arthurian literary history and become a national emblem under which England could unite.
The opening scene of Carr's narrative presents some of the earliest and most evident examples of the nationalistic emphasis:
Sword, no mortal shall withstand,
Fashioned by no mortal hand,
Long we wait the hour shall bring,
England's sword to England's King;
He shall wield Excalibur.
The show opens with Merlin teaching Arthur, amidst a thick mist and fog, the way to find redemption by listening to song and prophecy handed over by the spirits of the lake. Using this prologue to introduce the mysticism of Arthur's world, Carr also focuses the drama from the start on the danger of Guinevere. Carr soon abandons the influence of both Malory and Tennyson and introduces his own imaginative ideas into the script.
In the first act, "The Holy Grail" Percival is the first to volunteer for the quest once the Grail is seen. Unlike Tennyson, Carr has Lancelot stay in Camelot rather than questing with his companions. The play's handling of the Grail quest overall seems to reflect the Pre-Raphaelites' reverence for Galahad and his fellows.
Elaine of Astalot enters the court and disrupts the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere. Lancelot and Guinevere both battle their emotions for each other against those with whom their affections should lie (Elaine and Arthur). By the end of the act, Lancelot is already filled with guilt as he can see his inevitable downfall:
The second act, "The Queen's Maying," relies heavily on Malory who focused on the link between spring and true love. Lancelot and Guinevere's relationship is exploited by both Morgan le Fay and Mordred, who are bent on destroying Camelot. They are in the scene as the villainous antagonists watching as Lancelot and Guinevere pledge their love to one another, and in the process, seal their fates and the doom of the kingdom:
In his article in The Saturday Review, George Bernard Shaw writes, "There are excellent moments in the love scenes:indeed Lancelot's confession of his love to Guinevere all but earns for the author the poet's privilege of having his chain be tested by the strongest link."
The third act, which is titled "The Black Barge," opens with the body of Elaine being brought onstage. She has just died because Lancelot no longer loves her, and her body remains on the stage. Following the death of Elaine, Mordred reveals his plan for taking over the throne with the help of King Mark and Ryons.
Morgan steals the scabbard from Arthur, signaling a return to the violence and disorder that existed before Excalibur was sheathed after the founding of Camelot. Upon realizing the truth of Lancelot and Guinevere's adulterous relationship, Arthur turns to battle to escape his emotions.
The final act is "The Passing of Arthur." Lancelot and Mordred kill each other in battle. This departure from the normal versions of the story serves to create a strong sense of closure for the play as opposed to leaving the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere open. The conclusion of the play focuses on the returning of Excalibur to the lake.
Go quickly, Bedevere, and bear it hence
Unto that little bay hid in the cliff,
Then cast it in the sea, to wait that day
When upward from the shrieking waves shall spring
A vast sea-brood of mightier strain than ours,
Bearing across the world from end to end
One cry to all, "Our sword is in the sea."
An entire dramatisation of the work is available on the Librivox website.