Page images
PDF
EPUB

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 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 sug

gestion of Bird, whose name appears to a few introductory lines, which he calls a Prologue.

Edmonton had already given a “Devil"* to the 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, amidst 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

* 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 not without reason, for there are faint touches of a Shakspearian hand in some of the humourous scenes), may be concluded from the following lines in Ben Jonson's Prologue to “The Devil is an Ass :"

If you'll come
To see new plays, pray you afford us room ;
And show this but the same face you have done
Your dear delight, The Devil OF EDMONTON,"

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 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 “super human" 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. xii.) 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 Anatomie 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.

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 exbibits 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 dedication to the Earl of Peterborough, who had openly manifested his satisfaction with the piece on its first appearance, (when the actors exerted themselves with such success as to call for a separate acknowledgement,) Ford terms it " the first fruits of his leisure.” And here again, we have to lament that indistinctness which every where obscures the personal history of the poet. The first fruits of his leisure, the play before us could scarcely be; as (to omit all mention of those in which he joined with Decker) one of his dramast was performed at court nearly twenty years before the date of the present, which bears besides tokens of a mind habituated to deep and solemn musings, and formed by long and severe practice to a style of composition at once ardent and impressive.

Of the poetry of this play in the more impassioned passages it is not easy to speak too favourably; it is in truth too seductive for the subject, and flings a soft and soothing light over what, in its natural state, would glare with salutary and repulsive horror.

* This title has been substituted for a much coarser one.

+ It was entitled, “An ill Beginning has a good End.” It has not been thought necessary to trouble the reader with the names of other dramas attributed to our poet by Chalmers and Reed.

« PreviousContinue »