Page images
PDF
EPUB

REMARKS

ON

ENGLISH TRAGEDY.

The object of this collection is to include, in a concise and portable form, such plays as either retain possession of the stage, or are easily capable of being accommodated to it; a principle of selection which necessarily excludes the earlier and ruder essays of the dramatic muses, while due regard to the laws of literary property prevents its being extended to a very recent period. The works of Shakespeare have also been omitted, as in the hands of every lover of the drama. But, under these restrictions, the following volumes contain the master-pieces of every dramatic author of eminence, selected, without distinction, from three several periods of the history of the stage; a few remarks upon which may form no improper introduction to the collection.

I. The earliest period of the tragic drama, as a refined and artificial composition, distinct from the rude mysteries and moralities of our ancestors, may be held to extend from the end of the sixteenth century to the breaking out of the great civil war in 1642. It is adorned by some of the greatest names which British poetry can boast, and exhibits specimens of genius, which we may in vain seek to parallel during the ruder era that preceded, or the more polished times which followed. But although the genius of this period be indisputably predominant, it was exerted upon subjects, and under circumstances, which disqualified the greater part of the theatrical pieces it boasts from retaining possession of a modern stage. The wild and extravagant character of the incidents, the irregularity of the plot, the total and uncompromising neglect of the unities of time and place, although they may not greatly revolt the reader in his closet, render the pieces in which they abound embarrassing, as well as disgusting, in representation. Even the splendour of Shakespeare himself has been unable altogether to overcome the disadvantages arising from the rude state of the drama at the time when he wrote, insomuch that almost the one half of his iniinitable plays are excluded from a stage which owes its chief glory to his name. Were it here our object to trace the causes why the period most abounding in dramatic, particularly in tragic genius, affords us so few specimens of acting plays, or rather of plays now fit to be acted, the inquiry would carry us far; for it is not merely to the rude state of the

VOL. 1.

a

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

art so near its commencement, but to a number of corresponding contingencies, that the imperfections of our earlier drama must necessarily be ascribed. The applause which the ancient tragedians courted was seldom that of a select audience, far less, as was early the case in France, that of a fastidious and critical court, with a monarch in its centre. The dramatic pieces of Shakespeare, Massinger, Beaumont, Fletcher, and Ford, were represented before a miscellaneous concourse, whom chance, or the reputation of the author, happened to assemble for the night, in any of the twenty theatres which were nightly opened in the metropolis. Such an audience little prized the art, unity,and coherence of the pieces represented; and the indolence which almost uniformly accompanies genius was careful to give them no more than they demanded, and were capable of enjoying. If their pieces afforded striking incident, animated scenes, and glowing language, the authors, conscious that their hearers were indifferent how these were introduced or tacked together, took no trouble in subjecting their genius to the controul of the rules of art. Ben Jonson, who alone, among the dramatists of that period, attempted to found a reputation upon understanding and submitting to the discipline of the ancient stage, had so little reason to be proud of his success, that he growls upon every occasion against the rude taste of an age, which preferred to his laboured and well-concocted scenes, the more glowing, wild, and irregular effusions of his less learned contemporaries. The mode, also, in , which these plays were composed excludes the very idea of artful arrangement, or skilful coherence of parts. If the piece was happily the work of a single author, it was usually composed under such circumstances of hurry and negligence, as distinguish the daily labour, which toils for daily bread, from the more ambitious efforts, which propose fame alone for their object and reward. But it often happened that several poets clubbed their scattered and unconnected scenes to make up a single play; and the circumstance shews what very little consequence the union and consistency demanded upon the modern stage, held in the eyes of an audience in the former part of the sixteenth century. It is possible that, upon the whole, the drama (at least considered as a department of poetry) has profited by this relaxation of discipline; for, doubtless, some of our greatest authors might have been deterred from engaging in dramatic composition, by the terror of such rigorous laws as were early submitted to by the French writers. On the other hand, viewing the subject with reference to theatrical representation only, we cannot suppress a natural regret, that out of so many plays, sparkling with scenes at once passionate and poetical, we have been able, under the principle of exclusion already explained, to select only a very few for the purpose of this collection. This imperfection is, however, remedied, by the publication of the Ancient Drama, upon the same plan with the following volumes; which contains an ample selection from the theatrical remains of that wonderful age, when the art, though only in its infancy, displayed a lustre of genius, which, however rude and irregular, has never been equalled in the maturer period of our theatrical history.

The pieces which we have selected as examples of the drama during this period are taken from the works of the most celebrated writers. Four of these are selected from the works of Beaumont and Fletcher; and the Publisher cannot but hope that the beautiful scenes which they exhibit will be a sufficient apology for the irregularity of the action. In the Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare is supposed to have given his assistance, and it contains passages abounding even in the higher class of his beauties. The inci

pient derangement of the jailor's daughter, ere she breaks into actual frenzy, is at least as touching as the madness of Ophelia, which is absolute lunacy before she is produced to the spectators. And there are many other exquisite passages, to atone to the most fastidious for the unhappy management of a play, of which the first act very nearly elapses, without our even hearing of the two principal characters. King and No King illustrates that peculiar kind of composition called dramatic humour, which was commonly applied to comic purposes, but was also capable, as in this instance, of being illustrated by tragic exainples. This species of theatrical writing will be further explained in our short prefatory remarks on British comedy; and indeed the piece which occasions our mentioning it might, without impropriety, have been ranked in either class. Philaster and Bonduca have been revived with effect within these few years. From the works of Massinger, the skiltul intricacy and ingenious developement of whose plots form a striking exception to the gross negligence which we have stigmatized as characteristic of his contemporaries, our plan permits us to make more liberal extracts, in proportion to the extent of his labours. Of the two plays we have chosen, the Bondman was revived at Bath during the dawn of Mrs Siddons's reputation ; and we have been assured, that in no part of her varied excellence was she more inimitable, than in the power of expressing, by gesture, the varied passions which occupy the mind of Cleora while her features were hidden by å veil. The Fatal Dowry may be considered as still occupying the stage, in Rowe's tame and feeble copy. From the pathetic Ford we have given The Broken Heart, a tragedy in which he has exerted his utmost power over the passions.

Ere we leave this department of our collection, we may observe, that, as in Massinger's plays, we have used the corrected text of Gifford's excellent edi. tion, so in those of Beaumont and Fletcher, and Ford, we have had the singular advantage of arranging the text according to that of Mr Henry Weber of Edinburgh, whose taste and erudition render him so eminently capable of discharging his intended task of editing these classical dramatists.

II. When the Restoration had given a new birth to the theatre, its earlier efforts were formed upon the model of the French stage, to which the merry monarch and his wandering courtiers had accommodated their taste during their exile. But the character of an English audience, impatient of long and languid dialogue in couplets, demanded a more vehement stimulus of amusement; and although the authors of the rhyming, or heroic plays, as they were termed, endeavoured to compound, by throwing in an unusual quantity of bustle, pomp, and procession, the taste was too unnatural to be permanent. Dryden, who bad written in its favour, lived to read his recantation, and to exhibit the variety of his powers in a more natural style of composition. A forgotten poem, called " The Stage,” has traced this change in the distinguished bard's composition with some success.

Long felt the drama an inglorious dearth,
Nor wept the tragic muse, nor smiled the comic mirth :
At length his lyre harmonious Dryden strung,
Excelled in both, and both alternate sung:
At first, indeed, he made his heroes rant,
Or quibbled folly in his Wild Gallant ;
But as in music, when the artist long
Has tried each note, and dwelt upon the song,
The strings become familiar to his hand;
Around his lute the Graces take their stand;

He rises in his skill, the crowd controuls,
And robs his ravished audience of their souls:
Great Dryden thus, when perfect in his art,

Alarmed the brave, and charmed the fair one's heart. Omitting, therefore, the bombastic, though magnificent romantic dramas of Dryden's early days, we have chosen the Force of Love and Don Sebastian, as more chaste and genuine specimens of his tragic powers. In Lee's Rival Queens, the modern reader will find the only specimen of the heroic drama which has retained possession of the stage. It is not, indeed, in rhyme, but it abounds with the tumid language and violent strains, both of thought and passion, which Dryden used to call the Dalilahs of the theatre, and which are particularly calculated to favour that numerous class of . tragic actors, whose lungs are more powerful than their feelings. This, with Lee's more natural and affecting tragedy of Theodosius, are the only examples of his wild and ill-regulated genius which appear worthy of admission into a list of acting plays. "The original reputation of Otway rose upon his heroic drama of Don Carlos, which is now neither acted nor read.

Yet not in Fancy's maze he wandered long,

But stoop'd to truth. It were to be wished we could complete the couplet; but Otway never moralized his song." Yet, notwithstanding change of manners and refinement of taste, and in despite of a tendency, worse than dubious, the Orphan, and Venice Preserved, contain such exquisite touches of passionate and natural feeling, that they will probably retain possession of the stage until it shall be entirely abandoned to farce and pantomime. Southerne made Otway his model; and if he has not always attained the same tone of exquisite pathos, his general dialogue is more equal, the moral of his drama more praise-worthy, and the effect of his impassioned scenes hardly inferior to those of his great master. Those who have seen the sorrows of Belvidera, and those of Isabella, presented by the first actress of any age or country, are generally undecided, which most powerfully occupies the passes of the heart. With Southerne ended that line of tragic poets whom we consider as filling the second era of our stage history.

III. The third period, extending from the commencement of the eighteenth century to the present day, though it contains many tragedies of poetical merit, affords few which exert a violent sway over the feelings of the audience. As taste became more correct and fastidious, authors were more anxious to offer faultless, than powerful scenes to the public; they shrunk from those daring expressions of passion which are the charm of our earlier drama, and substituted beautiful imagery and flowing numbers for the language of truth and nature. The Mourning Bride of Congreve, although it contains many passages of great merit, may be considered as having led the way in a new style of composition, where the finished polish bestowed upon the whole play was designed to compensate the want of scenes of vigorous and predominating excellence. Rowe followed the footsteps of Congreve, but with a pace yet more restrained, timid, and irresolute; and the curious reader, by comparing bis Fair Penitent with the Fatal Dowry of Massinger, may form his own conclusions on the taste of the age, which approved of such an alteration. Young, though of a temper more gloomy, and using more tumid language, writes in a similar taste; and the same distinction may be clearly traced, by a comparison between his Revenge and Shakespeare's Othello. As

we were now nearly approaching to the French style of composition, several of their best tragedies were about this time translated for our stage, and well received. Zara, Mahomet, the Orphan of China, in which Voltaire had ventured more than one step towards the English taste, were easily adapted to it, by translators who had, on their side, already approximated to that of France. Yet this forid and diffuse species of drama, though supported by the genius of Hughes and Thompson, did not exclusively occupy the stage during the period we are treating of. The celebrated Cato of Addison (omitting the unnecessary love intrigue) is an attempt at a more chaste and classical model; taken, however, rather from the Grecian stage, than from that of Shakespeare. Glover formed his Boadicea on the same model, it was studied by Johnson for his Irene, and, with yet more strict conformity to the severity of the ancient rules, Mason produced Elfrida, and his inimitable Caractacus. Yet these pieces, although the welcome of the first was secured by fashion, literary intrigue, and party spirit, do not appear adapted to the taste of an English audience, accustomed, as they are, to pomp and circumstance, rapid incident, and the frequent change of splendid scenery. It is scarcely worth while to notice, that Howard, in his Charles I., attempted to revive the old historical tragedy, the scenes of which fluctuated between a drama and a chronicle; or that Mr Brooke gave a more successful example of somewhat the same style in his Gustavus Vasa. A very different kind of tragedy, formed in direct opposition to the school of Congreve and Rowe, seems to bid more fair for permanent popularity. This is chiefly to be found in the compositions of Lillo, which, representing calamities and crimes of private life, (those chiefly in which the catastrophe is shocking and bloody,) boast little ornament of verse, and claim attention only from the painful interest excited, and the rude, but natural language in which the actors express themselves. And if the more fastidious part of an audience are rather affected with painful horror, than with pleasing sadness, at this too naked picture of human vice and misery, the Gamester of Moore, written on the same plan, representing distress arising from a vice more familiar to their conception and habits, may convey to such the lesson which George Barnwell gives to their inferiors. Of the other tragedies produced during this period we wish to say little. Douglas alone claims distinction, and that chiefly on account of the incomparable felicity of the scene between Lady Randolph and the Shepherd, and the pure and exquisite representation of maternal affection, with which even those sympathise who have forgotten the agitation of love, and never felt the pangs of ambition. Towards the conclusion of the eighteenth century, an attempt was made, by the Honourable Horace Walpole, to illustrate the more powerful passions of terror, remorse, and despair. "The Mysterious Mother is a sketch' executed with great ability, and, in many scenes, similar to the powerful and gloomy style of Massinger. But no exertion of poetical talent can reconcile us to its radical defect, or induce us to consider as the proper subject for popular amusement, a story more unnaturally horrid than even the Edipus of Sophocles.

In concluding these desultory observations upon the popular iragedy, it seems natural to inquire to what causes it is owing that this beautiful, classical, and moral branch of the dramatic art seems now obviously in its decline. We cannot impute it to a dearth of performers, for at no period has the English stage boasted of more excellent tragic representatives. It might more justly be said to arise from a failure in poetic genius, did not the works of Miss Joanna Baillie contain scenes so true to nature and feeling, yet so well graced with poetical beauty, as justly to challenge for her a place in the

« PreviousContinue »