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ART. IV.-The Private Theatre of Kilkenny, with Introductory
Observations on other Private Theatres in Ireland, before it was opened. 4to. pp. 134. 1825.
There is no subject that we would sooner recommend to any
male or female author, in distress for a topic, than a History of the Private Theatres of Europe. It has been said of Gibbon, that his work is like the great whirlpool of Norway,
which sucks into its eddy bears, whales, ships, and everything • that comes within any possible reach of its engulfing streams;' —and this, after all, in much humbler walks of literature than that of Gibbon, is the grand secret of book-making. To find a subject which is either capable, or may be made so by a little management, of pressing all other possible subjects into its service, is the grand desideratum to which the quarto-monger and the man of many volumes should aspire. Bayle, we know, contrived, in his · Thoughts on the Comet,' to make the world acquainted with his thoughts on every other existent topic,-from Jesuits and Jansenists, and the Peace of Nimeguen, to Crusades, Demons, and the ever memorable Bishop of Condom. Berkeley has converted his Essay on Tar Water to purposes no less omnigenous and incongruous;—the principles of attraction, and repulsion-the story of Isis and Osiris—the Anima Mundi of Plato, and the doctrine of the Trinity, all administered to the reader through the somewhat nauseous medium of Tar Water.
With much less abuse of the privilege of discursiveness than has been assumed by either of those two celebrated sceptics, * the author of a History of Private Theatricals might interweave with his subject, not only an account of the Rise and Progress of the Drama, in the different countries of Europe, but by availing himself of the splendid names which have, from time to time, illustrated the annals of Private Theatres, he might, with perfect relevancy, branch out into such a rich variety of anecdote and biography, as few subjects-even among the best adapted for this sort of literary Macédoine—could furnish. By a converse of the proposition, all the World's a Stage,' he might, with little difficulty, succeed in making his Stage all the World.
Among the ancient Greeks there are, we believe, no traces of private theatrical performances;-and the reason may be, that as, in the eyes of that enlightened people, no stigma attached
** That all the arguments of Berkeley, (says Hume,) though other(wise intended, are, in reality, merely sceptical, appears from this that they admit of no answer, and produce no conviction.'
itself to the profession of an actor, the wealthy and high-born might indulge, not only with impunity but with honour, in their taste for the practice of that art on the boards of the public theatres. • It was allowed, says Montaigne,“ to persons of the
greatest quality to follow the profession of the stage in Greece.' The testimony of Livy to the same point is decisive ;-speaking of the tragic actor, Aristo, he says, . Huic et genus et fortuna • honesta erant, nec ars, quia nihil tale apud Græcos pudori
est, ea deformabat. Some of the greatest dramatic poets of Greece, Æschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, thought it not unbecoming to take a part in the representation of their immortal works; nor did the fellow-countrymen and contemporaries of Demosthenes feel themselves disgraced by having a great actor, Aristodemus, their representative at the Court of Philip.
This high appreciation of the ministers of the Dramatic Muse was worthy of the taste and liberal feeling of such a people. If the interpreters of the oracles of the gods derived a character of sacredness from their very task, those who gave utterance to the written spells of genius, might with equal justice participate in the homage paid to genius itself.
Far different was the estimation in which actors were held among the Romans. Their profession was pronounced by the law to be infamous, * and no person of free birth was to be found among its members. The pathetic address of Laberius, the Roman Knight, on being forced by Cæsar to appear on the public stage, is well known :
• Twice thirty years I've borne a spotless name,
But foul dishonour brands, at length, my brow;
And home a jester I'm returning now.
• He has outlived his honour-by a day.''t
* The defence which a writer in the Mémoires de l'Académie attempts to set up for the illiberal law of the Romans, is mere sophistry :-- Les Comédiens n'étoient réputés infames à Rome que par le vice de leur naissance, et non pas à cause de leur profession; et si elle n'eut été exercée que par des hommes libres, ils auroient eu autant de • respect que leur art en merite. Whether the law pronounced the profession itself to be infamous, or attained the same end by allowing none but infamous persons to practise it makes assuredly no difference in the real state of the case.
t • Ego, bis tricenis annis actis sine notâ,
Eques Romanus ex lare egressus meo,
l'no plus vixi mihi quam vivendum fuit.'
Where such ignominy was attached to the practice of acting in public, it was natural that the taste for theatrical personation, which is sure to spring up in all cultivated communities, should seek a vent for its indulgence in private performances. Accordingly, we find that there was a species of satirical Drama, called Atellanæ or Exodia, in which the free and noble youths of Rome, not only took delight to perform, but, with the true spirit of aristocratic exclusiveness, reserved the right of appearing in such dramas wholly to themselves; nor would suffer them, as Livy tells us, to be polluted by common histrions.'
On the revival of Dramatic Poesy among the Italians, it was in private theatres,—and, for a long period, in private theatres only,that any advances in the cultivation of the art were made. The slow growth, indeed, of this branch of literature in that country, and the few fruits of any excellence which it bas even yet put forth, would seem to warrant the conclusion to which the French critics have long since come, that the Italians are not, any more than their great ancestors, a dramatic people. It is certain, that their literature had produced its brightest and most desirable wonders before even the ordinary scenery and decorations of a theatre were introduced among them; and the poetry of Dante and Petrarch, and the prose of Boccaccio, had carried their beautiful language to its highest pitch of perfection, near a century and a half before a single play in this language was attempted. Nothing can, indeed, more strongly prove how little dramatic ideas or associations were afloat in the time of Dante, than that he should have ventured to call his shadowy and awful panorama of Hell, Heaven and Purgatory,—a Comedy.'
During all this interval, from the time of the great triumvirate of the fourteenth century to near the close of the fifteenth, an occasional representation of a play of Plautus or Terence, with, now and then, a drama, written in the same language, by some academician of Sienna, * and acted, or rather recited, by himself and his brethren, were the only signs of life that the Dramatic Muse of Italy exhibited. At length, towards the end of the fifteenth century, the poet and scholar, Politian—so bepraised during his lifetime, and so wholly unread almost ever since-presented his countrymen with the first native Italian
* The academicians of Sienna were long famous for their theatrical exhibitions. The Intronati of that learned city played the “ Amor • Costante' of the Archbishop Piccolomini before Charles 5th, when he
visited Sienna in 1536 ;- and the Ortensio of the same archiepiscopal · dramatist was performed by them before Cosmo 1st, in 1560.
tragedy;* and the Orfeo was acted before Lorenzo the Magnificent, amid the acclamations of all the wits and beauties of Florence.
What an audience might not imagination conjure up at a private performance of the Orfeo !- Who is he, with the prince
ly air and manly form,t to whose remarks Lorenzo de Medici • listens with such deference ?' _ It is the all-accomplished • Lord of Mirandola, the phenix of the wits of his age, to whom • every science, every art, every language is familiar,—but upon
whose young brow the seal of death is already fixed, as the 6 astrologers have already pronounced that he will not pass his
thirty-second year.'12 And that child, with the cardinal's • hat in his hand, whose red shoes and robes proclaim him al. ready a counsellor of the Pontiff?'— In that boy you see the • future Leo the Tenth, the destined ornament of the Papacy, • its first and its last.' - But him yonder, with the neck a lit
tle awry;ll with that portentous nose and purblind eyes ?"** « 'Tis Politian himself, the author of the Tragedy; and she,
that fair maid, to whom he has just handed a Greek extempore, which she reads with the same facility with which it was written, is the beautiful and learned Alessandra Scala, herself a distinguished private actress, as the verses of Poli. tian, on her performance of the Electra of Sophocles, testify.tt
La première tragédie qui parût sur le Théâtre, en bon style, et • avec quelque idée d'une action regulièrement conduite, est l'Orphée • de Ange Politien.' Gingueré. Doctor Burney traces the origin of the Italian Opera to the Orfeo.
+ • Il étoit le plus bel homme de son siècle-il avoit la mine haute, • la taille extraordinaire.' Varillas, Histoire Secrète de la Maison de Medicis.
I. Les Astrologues dressèrent l'Horoscope du Prince de la Miran• dole, et trouvèrent deux choses remarquables ;- l'une, qu'il ne met• troit pas la dernière main à son ouvrage contre eux, et l'autre, qu'il (ne passeroit pas l'âge de trente-deux ans. Ils lui envoyèrent signi• fier cet arrêt, dont il se mocqua. Mais l'événement justifia leur pre• diction. Varillas. § Leo was nominated a Cardinal in his thirteenth year.
Sed quid te cruciat reflexa colla
Polit. ** • Facie nequaquam ingenua et liberali, ab enormi præsertim naso, • subluscoque oculo perabsurdo.' Paul. Jov.
++ There are several poems in praise of this lady among the works of Politian ; and there is also an answer of hers, which-considering that it is Greck-is very modest and unassuming.
. With how little success the poet woos her, may be collected * from his extempore :
Καρπον εμοι ποθεoντι, συ δ' ανθεα φυλλα τι μενου
Δωρη, σημαινεσ' οττι ματην πονεω.
I do but waste my sighing hours,
Thou giv’st me nought but leaves and flowers." The example set by Politian was soon followed; and, an Italian Comedy being still a desideratum, the want was, not long after, supplied by Cardinal Bibbiera, whose clever, but licentious, comedy, the Calandra, was honoured with no less distinguished a place of representation than the private apartments of Leo the Tenth at the Vatican.* Gay times !—when Cardinals wrote right merrye' farces, and Popes were their audience. Had Leo contented himself with the classic indulgences of this world, without opening a mart for indulgences in the next, Luther would have wanted his best card, and the Papacy might have remained a little longer unshaken.
The illusions of scenic decoration, which had been first introduced, it is said, by Pomponius Lætus, in a play performed by his scholars at Rome, t-were at this period not only universally brought into play, but assisted by all that splendour and pageantry, in which the luxurious prelates and nobles of Italy delighted. Among the givers of these dramatic fêtes, the Dukes of Ferrara shone preeminent, and Hercules 1st was the author of an Italian translation of the Menæchmi, which was acted at Ferrara in 1486. Ariosto furnished the design for the theatre of the Court, which stood on the spot now occupied by the Chiesa Nuova; and such,' says Gibbon,' was the enthusiasm
of the new Arts, that one of the sons of Alfonso Ist did not • disdain to speak a prologue on this stage.' I.
But, among all the amateur actors of this period, he of whom the lovers of private theatricals have most reason to be proud, is the great Nicholas Machiavel,-he, the mighty searcher of courts, who stripped the leaves off the sceptre of tyrants, and showed the naked iron underneath. This author of the profoundest book ever written was not only a comic writer of first
* Baldastarre Peruzzi is said to have painted the scenery for this representation at the Vatican.
7 By some the invention of painted scenes is attributed to Cardinal Riario, nephew of the unprincipled Sixtus 4th.
| Antiquities of the House of Brunswick.