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But he had yet another resource. He had apparently contracted a strong and early passion for the stage, to which he devoted most of his leisure hours; and, without prematurely grasping at a name, wrote, as the custom then was, in conjunction with the regular supporters of the minor theatres. That he published nothing we are warranted to conclude from the assertion in the dedication to the “Lover's Melancholy" (given to the press in 1629), that this was “the first” (dramatic) “piece of his that ever courted reader.” But in the twenty-three years which had elapsed since the appearance of his Elegy, he had more than once courted the favour of the spectator," and “stood rubric” with others in the titlepage of several plays which have come down to us, and in more, perhaps, which remain to be discovered.
Of these joint-compositions two will be found in our second volume of Ford, the “Sun's Darling” and the “Witch of Edmonton.”
The first of these, in the composition of which Ford joined with Decker, is termed a “Moral Masque.”—For a moral mask, however, it sets the main business of life sufficiently low : there is nothing in it worthy of a wise and good man; nothing, in short, beyond what one of the herd of Epicurus might desire—sensual pleasures and gross enjoyments. The plot may be briefly despatched. “Raybright (the Sun's Darling) is roused from a pleasant dream, and informed that his great progenitor, the Sun, will descend from his sphere to
* We have the authority of Singleton for the fact, who, in the lines prefixed to this very play (The Lover's Melancholy), says, “Nor seek I praise for thee, when thine own pen Hath forced a praise long since from knowing men.”
gratify his wildest longings for enjoyment; accordingly, at his imperial command, he is entertained by the four Seasons in succession, all of whom endeavour to recommend themselves to his affection, and to all of whom he vows eternal fidelity; but abruptly abandons each of them in turn, at the instigation of Humour and her attendant, Folly.” The result may be anticipated. The youth recognises his error, and determines to be very wise and virtuous for the residue of his days; when he is told, in strains not unworthy of the subject, that his days are already numbered, and that the inevitable hour is fast closing upon all his earthly prospects. Indifferent as is the execution of this piece, it is still far superior to its conception. Passages of considerable beauty, especially in the last two acts, frequently occur; but there is nothing to redeem the absurdity of the plot. Instead of taking up an inexperienced, unsophisticated youth, and opening the world to him for the first time, for the instruction of others, the authors have inconsiderately brought forward a kind of modern Virbius; a character who had previously run through life and its various changes, and seen and enjoyed infinitely more than is tendered to him in his new career. The second piece, “The Witch of Edmonton,” was brought out about the same period as the former, and printed in 1658, probably at the suggestion of Bird, whose name appears to a few introductory lines, which he calls a prologue. Edmonton had already given a “Devil” to the
* The “Merry Devil of Edmonton” must have been acted at least as early as the year 1604. That it was a very favourite performance (and
delighted stage, and it appears accordingly to have been thought that a “Witch” from the same quarter would wear some attraction even in the very name.
And the authors were not disappointed in their conjecture. The sorceress of our times (for they will not be called witches now) is a splendid character ; she moves like a volcano, amid smoke and fire, and throws heaven and earth into commotion at every step: but the witch of those days was a miserable creature, enfeebled by age, soured by poverty, and maddened by inveterate persecution and abuse. The scenic adjuncts which gave reality and life to the pranks of this august personage were, briefly, a few hereditary properties” from the green-room of old John Heywood's days, the whole of which might inhabit lax in a single cloak-bag. No sweet symphonies from viewless harps, no beautiful displays of hell broke-up, and holyday devils dancing ad libitum through alternate scenes of terror and delight, were at our poet's command, call for them as he might: a black shaggy rug, in imitation of a dog's skin, into which a clever imp was thrust, and taught to walk on all fours, with permission to relieve himself occasionally by “standing on his hind-legs,” and “a mask and visor for a spirit in the shape of Katherine,” were all the machinery which the simplicity or poverty of the old theatre allowed him; yet even these were not regarded not without reason, for there are faint touches of a Shakspearian hand in some of the humorous scenes), may be concluded from the following lines in Ben Jonson's prologule to “The Devil is an Ass :"
“ If you 'll come
without considerable interest by those who knew no superstitions but the legendary ones of long ages, and “The Witch of Edmonton” appears accordingly to have been a very popular piece. It deserved, indeed, to be so ; for whatever the absurdities and incongruities, and however much we may be disposed to smile at the “superhuman” parts of the story, the fable, divested of these, will be found to form a beautiful whole, and cannot but be considered as one of the most tender and affecting of our domestic tragedies. It has been observed (p. xviii.) that the poet entertained a high degree of love and respect for his cousin John Ford, of Gray's Inn; and he took the earliest opportunity of showing it, by prefixing his name, with that of one or two others of “his honoured friends of that noble society,” to his first acknowledged piece, the Lover's Melancholy. There is an affectation of modesty in the dedication, which, when the writer's age is considered (for he was now in the full maturity of life), might be wished away; and there is something of unsuspicious pleasantry in following up the timely hint “that printing his works might soon grow out of fashion with him,” by sending all his subsequent ones to the press' The “Lover's Melancholy” was published in 1629. It appeared on the stage in the winter of the preceding year; and was probably written not long before, since Burton's popular work, “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” on which the comic part (if so it must be termed) of the story is founded, and to which the title evidently refers, had not been above a year or two before the public. Vol. I.-3
Mr. Campbell observes, with great justice, that the poetic portion of this play has much of the grace and sweetness which distinguish the genius of Ford. It has also somewhat more of sprightliness in the language of the secondary characters than is commonly found in his plays; and, could we suppose that the idle buffoonery was introduced at a later period, in compliance with the taste of the age, which seems to have found a strange and unnatural delight in the exhibition of these humiliating aberrations of the human mind, we might almost be tempted to surmise, that the rest of the drama was of an earlier period than is here set down for it. The catastrophe, indeed the whole of the last act, is beautifully written, and exhibits a degree of poetical talent and feeling which few of the dramatic writers of that day surpassed.
Ford had somewhat pettishly observed in the epilogue to this piece, that if it failed to please the audience he would not trouble them again; and in the same peevish mood he tells his cousin of Gray's Inn, in the dedication, that offering “a play to the reader may soon grow out of fashion with him.” He certainly evinced no great degree of earnestness to appear again before the public, as the next play, “Annabella and Giovanni,” was not given to the press till nearly four years after the former; when, as if to indemnify himself for his constrained forbearance, he published three of his dramas at short intervals. The present play has neither prologue nor epilogue; but in the
* This title has been substituted for a much coarser one.