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liant of wit, and concise sententiousness peculiar to that age, with the truth and gravity of better times, and the deep reflection and good sense of the best moderns, cannot choose but have something to strike you. Yet what I admire in him above all this, is his detestation of tyranny, and the high spirit of liberty that every now and then breaks out, as it were, whether he would or
I remember a sentence in his Agricola that (concise as it is) I always admired for saying much in a little compass. He speaks of Domitian, who upon seeing the last will of that general, where he had made him coheir with his wife and daughter, “ Satis constabat lætatum eum, velut honore, judicioque: tam cæca et corrupta mens assiduis adulationibus erat, ut nesciret a bono patre non scribi hæredem, nisi malum principem.”
As to the Dunciad, it is greatly admired: the genii of operas and schools, with their attendants, the pleas of the virtuosos and florists, and the yawn of dulness in the end, are as fine as any thing he has written. The metaphysician's part is to me the worst; and here and there a few ill-expressed lines, and some hardly intelligible.
I take the liberty of sending you a long speech of Agrippina; much too long, but I could be glad you would retrench it. Aceronia, you may remember, had been giving quiet counsels. I fancy, if it ever be finished, it will be in the nature of Nat. Lee's Bedlam Tragedy, which had twenty-five acts, and some odd scenes.
The speech herewith sent to Mr. West was the concluding one of the first scene of a tragedy, which I believe was begun the preceding winter. The Britannicus of M. Racine, I know, was one of Mr. Gray's most favourite plays; and the admirable manner in which I
have heard him say that he saw it represented at Paris, seems to have led him to choose the death of Agrippina for this his first and only effort in the drama. The execution of it also, as far as it goes, is so very much in Racine's taste, that I suspect, if that great poet had been born an Englishman, he would have written precisely in the same style and manner. However, as there is at present in this nation a general prejudice against declamatory plays, I agree with a learned friend, who perused the manuscript, that this fragment will be little relished by the many; yet the admirable strokes of nature and character with which it abounds, and the majesty of its diction, prevent me from withholding from the few, who I expect will relish it, so great a curiosity (to call it nothing more) as part of a tragedy written by Mr. Gray. These persons well know, that till style and sentiment be a little more regarded, mere action and passion will never secure reputation to the author, whatever they may do to the actor. It is the business of the one " to strut and fret his hour upon the stage;" and if he frets and struts enough, he is sure to find his reward in the plaudit of an upper gallery: but the other ought to have some regard to the cooler judgment of the closet: for I will be bold to say, that if Shakspeare himself had not written a multitude of passages which please there as much as they do on the stage, his reputation would not stand so universally high as it does at present. Many of these passages, to the shame of our theatrical taste, are omitted constantly in the representation : but I say not this from conviction that the mode of writing, which Mr. Gray pursued, is the best for dramatic purposes. I think myself, what I asserted elsewhere,† that a medium between the French and English taste would be preferable to either; and yet this medium, if hit with the greatest
nicety, would fail of success on our theatre, and that for a very obvious reason. Actors (I speak of the troop collectively) must all learn to speak as well as act, in order to do justice to such a drama.
But let me hasten to give the reader what little insight I can into Mr. Gray's plan, as I find, and select it from two detached papers. The title and Dramatis Persona are as follow :
AGRIPPINA, A TRAGEDY.
AGRIPPINA, the Empress mother.
SCENE, the Emperor's villa at BAIÆ. The argument drawn out by him, in these two papers, under the idea of a plot and under-plot, I shall here unite; as it will tend to shew that the action itself was possest of sufficient unity.
The drama opens with the indignation of Agrippina, at receiving her son's orders from Anicetus to remove from Baiæ, and to have her guard taken from her. At this time Otho, having conveyed Poppæa from the house of her husband Rufus Crispinus, brings her to Baiæ, where he means to conceal her among the crowd; or, if his fraud is discovered, to have recourse. to the Emperor's authority; but knowing the lawless temper of Nero, he determines not to have recourse to that expedient, but on the utmost necessity. In the mean time he commits her to the care of Anicetus, whom he takes to be his friend, and in whose age he thinks he may safely confide. Nero is not yet come to Baiæ; but Seneca, whom he sends before him, informs Agrippina of the accusation concerning Rubellius Plancus, and desires
her to clear herself, which she does briefly; but demands to see her son, who, on his arrival, acquits her of all suspicion, and restores her to her honours. In the mean while Anicetus, to whose care Poppæa had been intrusted by Otho, contrives the following plot to ruin Agrippina : he betrays his trust to Otho, and brings Nero, as it were by chance, to the sight of the beautiful Poppæa; the Emperor is immediately struck with her charms, and she, by a feigned resistance, increases his passion; though in reality, she is from the first dazzled with the prospect of empire, and forgets Otho : she therefore joins with Anicetus in his design of ruining Agrippina, soon perceiving that it will be for her interest. Otho hearing that the Emperor had seen Poppæa, is much enraged; but not knowing that this interview was obtained through the treachery of Anicetus, is readily persuaded by him to see Agrippina in secret, and acquaint her with his fears that her son Nero would marry Poppæa. Agrippina, to support her own power, and to wean the Emperor from the love of Poppæa, gives Otho encouragement, and promises to support him. Anicetus secretly introduces Nero to hear their discourse; who resolves immediately on his mother's · death, and, by Anicetus's means, to destroy her by drowning. A solemn feast, in honour of their reconciliation, is to be made; after which she being to go by sea to Bauli, the ship is so contrived as to sink or crush her; she escapes by accident, and returns to Baiæ. In this interval, Otho has an interview with Poppæa, and being duped a second time by Anicetus and her, determines to fly with her into Greece, by means of a vessel which is to be furnished by Anicetus; but he, pretending to remove Poppæa on board in the night, conveys her to Nero's apartment: she there encourages and determines Nero to banish Otho, and finish the horrid deed he had attempted on his mother. Anicetus under
takes to execute his resolves; and, under pretence of a plot upon the Emperor's life, is sent with a guard to murder Agrippina, who is still at Baiæ in imminent fear, and irresolute how to conduct herself. The account of her death, and the Emperor's horror and fruitless remorse, finishes the drama.
I refer the reader to the 13th and 14th books of the annals of Tacitus for the facts on which this story is founded : by turning to that author, he will easily see how far the poet thought it necessary to deviate from the truth of history. I shall only further observe, that as such a fable could not possibly admit of any good character, it is terror only, and not pity that could be excited by this tragedy, had it been completed. Yet it was surely capable of exciting this passion in a supreme degree; if, what the critics tell us be true, that crimes, which illustrious persons commit, affect us from the very circumstance of their rank, because we unite with that our fears for the public weal.
ACT I. SCENE I.
'Tis well, begone! your errand is perform’d:
[Speaks as to Anicetus entering.