Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

In one

termination; and his characters, like those of real life, gradually open and

, develope themselves according to the circumstances in woich they are placed. Neither does this art, in which Massinger has never been exceeded, rest merely upon the pleasing surprise which his plays afford at first reading or representation. On the contrary, in a second perusal, we enjoy the yet more rational pleasure of observing those minute and scarcely visible touches, by which that skilful author, from the very opening of the piece, indicates the gerins of the passions which are to expand theinselves in its prozress. respect, all these ancient dramatists are censurable. The language of their coinedy is often coarse and indelicate; a fault arising chiefly from the manners of the age in which they lived, and which was more flagrantly predominant in that which succeeded.

II. The license which attended the restoration, and the vitiated taste of Charles Ii, and his courtiers, debauched the stage to a degree unknown in any age or country. Indecency of dialogue was no longer the rude effusion of a careless poet to an unpolished audience, but became the regular and systematic support of comic effect upon all possible occasions. The play-wright, who had not ingenuity enough for a veiled allusion, made up by broad and direct language what he wanted in sly insinuation. The introduction of female performers, which, one would suppose, even according to the voluptuary's apprehension, ought to have checked this tide of gross and disgusting indelicacy, only gave it fresh zest. And so strong and universal was the taint, that, until the period of the Revolution, it is difficult to select any exainple of the comedy of that witty age which is fit for representation, unless in a castigated shape. The æra was distinguished by false taste, as well as indelicacy. l'he heavy and forgotten Shadwell essayed indeed the style of Ben Jonson, and affected to draw characters of humour; but Dryden, with Etherege, Sedley, and other“ men of wit and pleasure about town,” endeavoured to make their scenes a representation of the incessant attempt at sarcasm and repartee, which were then accounted the principal graces of fashionable conversation. l'his sort of raillery was called gallant, easy, and polite conversation, and was boasted as the language of the best society, to which the genius of a dramatic author was then a ready passport, though he seldom gained more by such an honour than an opportunity of improving the dialogue of the wit or tine gentleman of his next comedy. The Duke of Buckingham's Rehearsal, which exploded the extravagancies of the heroic tragedy, had soine share in subduing the prevailing taste for those witty dialogues, which occupied whole scenes, without either displaying the characters, or forwarding the action, of the drama. And although this ambitious display of wit did not entirely lose ground, it cannot be denied that comedy continued to improve until the day's of Congreve, Wycherly, Farquhar, and Vanbrugh. Meanwhile, the stores of foreign nations were laid under liberal contribution, and the Engiish dramalists drew variety of incident, and complication of intrigue, from the Spanish comedians; while, from those of France, whose rules, it not strictly insisted upon, were well understood by Charles Il. and his courtiers, they adopted in some degree refinement and regularity. Dryden, it is true, succeeded but indifferently in the task of writing comedy, not adopted, as he confesses, by choice, but imposed by the imperious necessity of his circumstances. Yet his Spanish Friar would have established his character as an English classic, had not his pre-eminence been more decided in other walks of poetry. But the buskin of Jonson, after having been in vain assumed by Shadwell, more successfully essayed by Wycherly in his Plain Dealer. Manly and Mrs

was a

ܪ

а

[ocr errors]

Blackacre are both characters of humour, speaking and acting from a peculiar bias of temper and inclination. The bint of the former seems to have been taken from Moliere's Misanthrope, though the English author has displayed greater address in the action. Wycherly's Country Wife, which no mo.. dern audience could have tolerated in its original state, has been reformed into the Country Girl ; and, by the comic powers of an excellent modern actress, obtains a distinguished place among our stock-plays. But Congreve carried the comedy of this period to its perfection ; and just about the close of the seventeenth century, produced the four most witty plays which our language can boast. Although too deeply tinged with indelicacy, a gradual refinement of taste exempted them, in part at least, from the grossness of Charles the Second's time. In other respects, they are excellent. The glowing brilliancy of Congreve’s dialogue is unequalled, perhaps, in the drama of any nation, and has, in some degree, the effect of obscuring his no less exquisite power of marking the characters of his plays. The only fault that can be objected to him, save that which he has in common with all other comic writers of that licentious age, is a redundancy of wit,-a blemish scarce to be found in any author, save himself and Butler. A fault, however, it certainly is; for the perpetual succession of repartee fatigues at length the audience, and the author's own powers of conversation are sometimes imparted to characters to whom they are by no means appropriate. His fools and coxcombs are as witty as his men of fashion; and the valets and chamber-maids emulate their masters and mistresses in promplness of repartee. Yet, under a disadvantage of so singular a nature, Congreve must be allowed the praise of uniting the power of drawing and designing humourous characters, which was the boast of Ben Jonson, with that of enlivening his scene by the life, air, and gaiety of dialogue which were demanded under the lively reign of Charles II.

III. Vanbrugh and Farquhar were the principal props of the stage when Congreve withdrew from it in disgust about the year 1700. Not being pos. sessed of the copious wit of their friend and contemporary, these authors were easily able to avoid the principal defect of his compositions. They displayed their stock of lively and smart things to better advantage, as they were conscious that it was more easily exhaustible. Hence, if their dialogue fell short of the brilliancy of Congreve's, they gained in nature what they lost in pointed effect; and it could not be objected to them, as to their predecessor, that, in the prodigality of their wit and sharpness of conceit, they confounded the distinctions of dramatic characters. In other respects, they strongly resembled each other. Light, lively, humourous, never flagging upon the stage, and sustaining their characters by such easy language as seldom over-burdened the memory or powers of a performer, Vanbrugh and Farquhar have left us some of our best acting plays. Vanbrugh, with his friend Congreve, afforded Collier the fairest mark when he attacked the profligacy of the stage; nor has it been possible to adınit his plays upon a modern theatre without much pruning. Farquhar profited by the lesson, and was not more indelicate than that age seems to have thought very permissible. His genius resembled that of Vanbrugh; but if the latter excelled him in case of dialogue, Farquhar has perhaps some superiority in incident, and in the power of embodying the lighter follies of fashionable life. His Sir Harry Wildair was long the delight of the theatre; and the Beaux Stratagem exhibited in Archer a man of fashion of a warmer temperament, equally fortunate in fascinating liveliness and elegance of manners, rendered more picquant by the contrast with his menial disguise. The commencement of the eighteenth century presented also the Druinmer

a

of Addison, a comedy which, without any powerful delineation of character, (if we except the old Steward) is a favourable specimen of the amiable temper and peculiar vein of ironic pleasantry which distinguished the accomplished author. His friend Steele was scarcely so fortunate. There is a rudeness and inequality in all his writings, which is particularly visible in his dramatic compositions. His attempts at the tender and pathetic are misplaced and tedious; and our greatest relief is in the scenes of broad humour, of which Steele possessed a plentiful portion. Both these authors had in this, as in other departments of polite literature, the superior praise of endeavouring to convey instruction in the guise of pleasure. The stage, under such auspices, began to vindicate itself from the charge of immorality, and decency was now expected and exacted from those who professed to offer an elegant amusement to a polisbed audience. The elder dramatists, whose works were excluded under these new canons of taste, afforded now an inexhaustible quarry to authors, who brought their plays forth in a corrected and amended state. Among these labourers, Cibber was one of the most active. But although insulted by Pope for his obligations to the French and to the ancients; although Fletcher gave him the matter for Love Makes a Man, and She Would and She Would Not; and Barnaby, with the French comedy of Le Gallant Double, afforded him the ground-work of the Double Gallant, it ought not to be forgotten, in favour of this singular, undaunted, and whimsical personage, that, in the Careless Husband, he has given us a most admirable comedy, in which, without having recourse to bustling incident, extravagant character, overstrained dialogue, or low humour, the attention is gradually and pleasingly fixed upon such characters as have always existed in fashionable life, and on the issue of such adventures as they are frequently engaged in. The character of Lady Betty Modish was acted with irresistible comic spirit by the celebrated Mrs Oldfield, from whose real character Cibber is supposed to have sketched his imaginary lady of fashion. This may be considered as the first genteel comedy upon the English stage, and the precursor of a numerous class of plays, which did not, as formerly, represent the operation of one single passion rushing with impetuosity to the accomplishment of its desires. It is not the natural, but the artificial state of man, which this species of drama presents; exhibiting characters not acting under the predominance of natural feeling, but warped from their genuine bent by the habits, rules, and ceremonies of high life. The food of its satire is rather the various shades of affectation than the different qualities of mind; for, as it is the principal object of an artificial state of society to veil the operation of actual feeling, individuals are rather distinguished by peculiarities of manner than of thought and action, just as the combatants of yore were known by their crests and armorial bearings, while their faces were hidden under their helinets. But the success of the Careless Husband did not invite imitation so early as might have been expected. Other plays came forward, grounding their interest upon the operation of passion, or upon suspense excited by complexity of intrigue, whose authors claim a momentary notice before the imitators of Cibber. As Cibber had himself been an amender or cobler of other men's plays, it was the fate of his favourite Nonjuror, borrowed from Moliere’s Tartuffe, and applied to the purposes of a political party, to be diverted to an attack upon a religious sect, and, under the title of the Hypocrite, flung at the heads of the Methodists. Of Mrs Centlivre's pieces, it is only necessary to say, that she has copied the bustle of the Spanish plots, and that disguises, trap-doors, mistakes, intrigues, and dark closets, supply what is wanting in language and in dramatic characters. Yet the Busy Body and the Wonder

[ocr errors]

are always acted with applause ; for, as has been observed by a national critic, the Englishman, naturally of a more restrained and saturnine disposition, comes to the theatre to have bis attention excited by incident and stage dilemma, while the more lively Frenchman seeks it as a place where his spirits are to be lowered, and his temper rendered serious by protracted dialogue and sedative soliloquy. The plays of Moliere are frequently an exception; and in translating bis Miser, Fielding, so inimitable in his own walk, gave the stage the only play which, notwithstanding his various theatrical attempts, has been found worthy of retaining a place there. It is scarce worth while to notice Kenrick's anomalous comedy, entitled Falstaff's Wedding, which, however, we have admitted into this collection as a singular instance of the author's temerity in attempting an imitation of Shakespeare upon his own canvass, and of his good fortune in escaping so decently from his perilous essay. Murphy's Way to Keep Him, and Colman's Jealous Wife, are imitations of the Careless Husband, and by no means deficient in merit, though inferior to their original. The latter has the additional disadvantage of being, in many respects, literally copied from Tom Jones; and it has rarely happened that an author, thus openly renouncing all pretensions to originality, is very successful in establishing his claim to public applause. The Way to Keep Him, and the Suspicious Husband, are likewise genteel comedies; toward which species of composition the taste of the times, about the middle of the eighteenth century, seemed decidedly to incline. The bias was considerably increased by the success of the Clandestine Marriage, in which the principal comic character, though somewhat of a caricature, was so admirably presented by King, as to ensure a rapid and enduring popularity to that agreeable comedy. The path of genteel comedy is, however, one of the most difficult in the drama; and perhaps the more so, because it seems one of the easiest. Few authors by profession gain admittance into that society where the nicer and more exquisite shades of fashionable folly, affectation, dissimulation, and coquetry are found to predominate. Fewer still have the power of fixing and tracing, with a comic pencil, these evanescent and delicate peculiarities which fit and fluctuate upon the surface of an uniform and refined system of manners, like the vapour of the breath upon polished steel. Yet these transient shades must not only be seized and represented, but so represented, that he who runs may read, and that the citizen or artizan, who is ignorant of the manners of high life, may yet comprehend its absurdities, and laugh at its affectations. Where this delicacy of touch is wanting, genteel comedy is, of all stupid entertainments, the most tiresome; nor can we account for the toleration extended to the numberless stupifying productions claiming the name, excepting upon the principle under which some persons will endure the dullest possible society, provided it include persons pretending to rank or title. Goldsmith, with all the humour of his nation, made two attempts to bring back the public taste to a relish for nature and wit, in characters drawn from the middling and lower ranks of life. The Good-natured Man was not very successful, although the admirable character of Croaker ought to have ensured it. But She Stoops to Conquer, the second well-known effort of Goldsmith's dramatic muse, although certainly bordering upon farce, was supported with so much liveliness of dialogue, so much broad humour and ludicrous incident, that even the most refined part of the audience were compelled to relax into the hearty laugb of Old England and of nature. The genteel comedy has been since successfully revived in the West Indian of Cumberland: the Brothers, another piece of that author, rather draws its interest from the humour displayed in the lower scenes. Both, especially the former, retain deservedly a high rank among our acting plays. But the glory of the British stage is to be found in the writings of an author" lost but too soon in yonder house —” Without pretending to say whether the Rivals and the School for Scandal are to be considered as genteel comedies in the strictest sense of the word, they display that nice and delicate taste which seizes the manners as they rise and disappear, combined with the broader and more laughable delineation of comic character. The wit of the author, though its flashes are as bright as those of Congreve, being held under due restraint, serves, on the one hand, to enliven the easy and natural dialogue of high life, while the portion of it which is imparted to that of the lower characters, is so well accommodated to their more vulgar language and habits of thinking, that none of its coruscations could be transferred to another person of the drama than him by whom it is spoken, without an obvious offence against propriety. The plots of Mr Sheridan's plays are happily contrived, and developed with much stage effect, though without any complication of intrigue. "They have, doubtless, their faults ; but, as we must own we were never able to observe any which ought to be mentioned in comparison with their merits, we shall leave their dissection to more acute critics. The bounds of our collection do not permit us to prosecute this investigation any farther; a circumstance which we cannot regret, since we could only trace the declension of the art from Attic comedy to German importations of false sensibility, and domestic productions, where the humour rests upon grimace, cant, and catch-words. Yet it is but just to say, that comedy still receives some countenance from the British audience, and that its revival, upon a true and classic model, may be more reasonably hoped than that of tragic representation.

« ПредишнаНапред »