« PreviousContinue »
most imaginative of the familiar writers of his day, and the most familiar of the imaginative:-and it was this happy combination that enabled him to excel almost all his competitors in the department of polite comedy. Many dramatists before him had a loftier fancy and a bolder vein of invention; and several were at least his equals, as mere imitators of the ease and sprightliness of actual conversation. But we know none in whom both attributes were ever so happily blended :—and we cannot but think, whatever else it deprived us of, that we owe the best charm of his comedies to those indolent and social propensities, which fought so fatally in other respects against the higher tendencies of his nature.
It would be something of the latest to engage now in a critique on the Rivals or the School for Scandal; and it would be useless. The public and general judgment is right; both in the very high rank it has assigned to these pieces, and in the exceptions with which it has qualified its praise. They are all over sparkling with wit, and alive with character; and nothing, so much better in its substance than the real conversation of polite · society, ever came so near it, in manner. But there is too much merely ornamental dialogue, and, with some very fine theatrical situations, too much intermission in the action and business of the play; and, above all, there is too little real warmth of feeling, and too few indications of noble or serious passion thoroughly to satisfy the wants of English readers and spectators -even in a comedy. Their wit is the best of them ;-and we do not mean to deny that it is both genuine and abundant. But it is fashioned rather too much after one pattern; and resolved too often into studied comparisons, and ludicrous and ingenious similes. There is a degree of monotony in this; and its very condensation gives it something of a quaint, elaborate, and ostentatious air. The good things are all detached, and finished, and independent, each in itself; and, accordingly, they do not inform the style with a diffusive splendour, such as the sun sheds on a fine landscape, but sparkle in their separate spheres, more in the manner of nightly illuminations in a luxurious city. It is but a forked and jagged lightning, compared to the broad flashes of Shakespeare, that kindle the whole horizon with their wide and continuous blaze! It is not fair, perhaps, to name that mighty name, in estimating the merits of any other writer. But, since it is done, it may serve still farther to illustrate what we mean, if we add, that, where Sheridan resembles him at all in his wit and humour, it is rather in the ostentatious and determined pleasantries of such personages as Mercutio or Benedict, than in the rich and redundant inventions of Falstaff, the light-hearted gayety of Rosalind, the jollity of Sir
Toby, or the inexhaustible humours and fancies of his clowns, fairies, fools, constables, serving-men and justices. What a variety ! what force, what facility,—and how little depending on point, epigram, or terseness of expression !
Mr Moore has made many excellent observations on these great works of his author; and we do not know very well why we have not given them to our readers, instead of our own, except that they would necessarily have been longer. We must make room, however, for the following admirable remarks on the moral tendency of the School for Scandal.
• A more serious charge has been brought against it on the score of morality, and the gay charm thrown around the irregularities of Charles is pronounced to be dangerous to the interests of honesty and virtue. There is no doubt that, in this character, only the fairer side of libertinism is presented, – that the merits of being in debt are rather too fondly insisted upon, and with a grace and spirit that might seduce even creditors into admiration. It was, indeed, playfully said, that no tradesman who applauded Charles could possibly have the face to dun the author afterwards. In looking, however, to the race of rakes that had previously held possession of the stage, we cannot help considering our release from the contagion of so much coarseness and selfishness to be worth even the increased risk of seduction that may have succeeded to it; and the remark of Burke, however questionable in strict ethics, is, at least, true on the stage— that “ vice loses half its evil by losing all its grossness.
• It should be recollected, too, that, in other respects, the author applies the lash of moral satire very successfully. That group of slanderers who, like the Chorus of the Eumenides, go searching about for their prey with“ eyes that drop poison,” represent a class of persons in society who richly deserve such ridicule, and who— like their prototypes in Æschylus trembling before the shafts of Apollo—are here made to feel the full force of the archery of wit. It is, indeed, a proof of the effect and use of such satire, that the name of “ Mrs Candour” has become one of those formidable by-words, which have more power in putting folly and ill-nature out of countenance, than whole volumes of the wisest remonstrance and reasoning.
• The poetical justice exercised upon the Tartuffe of sentiment, Joseph, is another service to the cause of morals, which should more than atone for any dangerous embellishment of wrong, that the portraiture of the younger brother may exhibit. Indeed, though both these characters are such as the moralist must visit with his censure, there can be little doubt to which we should, in real life, give the preference.—The levities and errors of the one, arising from warmth of heart and of youth, may be merely like those mists that exhale from summer streams, obscuring them awhile to the eye, without affecting the native purity of their waters; while the hypocrisy of the other is like the mirage of the desert, shining with promise on the surface, but all false and barren beneath.'
The most curious part, however, of Mr Moore's history of this famous comedy, is that in which he exhibits, by copious extracts from the original manuscripts in his possession, the many great changes and signal improvements it received, in its progress through the patient and skilful hands of its author. It is of course impossible for us to give any adequate specimens of those interesting variations:-and, indeed, they cannot be perused with full advantage, without having the finished copy to refer to ;-and we hope, therefore, that Mr Moore will print, or allow them to be printed, in a new edition of the play itself where the whole course and order of the changes and additions may be at once under the reader's eye, and the original and improved form of the different portions of the work may be conveniently compared. At present, we can only afford to copy the remarks with which he concludes this branch of the publication.
• To trace even the mechanism of an author's style through the erasures and alterations of his rough copy, is, in itself, no ordinary gratification of curiosity; but it is still more interesting to follow thus the course of a writer's thoughts—to watch the kindling of new fancies as he goes—to accompany him in his change of plans, and see the various vistas that open upon him at every step. It is, indeed, like being admitted by some magical power, to witness the mysterious processes of the natural world—to see the crystal forming by degrees round its primitive nucleus, or observe the slow ripening of
" the imperfect ore, “ And know it will be gold another day ! In respect of mere style, too, the workmanship of so pure a writer of English as Sheridan is well worth the attention of all who would learn the difficult art of combining ease with polish, and being, at the same time, idiomatic and elegant. There is not a page of these manuscripts that does not bear testimony to the fastidious care with which he selected, arranged, and moulded his language, so as to form it into that transparent channel of his thoughts, which it is at present.
· His chief objects in correcting were to condense and simplify-to get rid of all unnecessary phrases and epithets, and, in short, to strip away from the thyrsus of his wit every leaf that could render it less light and portable. One instance out of many will show the improving effect of these operations. The following is the original form of a speech of Sir Peter's :
“ People, who utter a tale of scandal, knowing it to be forged, deserve the pillory more than for a forged bank-note. They can't
the lie without putting their names on the back of it. You say no person has a right to come on you because you didn't invent it ; but you
should know that, if the drawer of the lie is out of the way, the injured party has a right to come on any of the indorsers.”
• When this is compared with the form in which the same thought is put at present, it will be perceived how much the wit has gained in lightness and effect by the change :
“ Mrs Canılour. But sure yon would not be quite so severe on those who only report what they hear ?
“ Sir P. Yes, madam, I would have Law-merchant for them too ; and in all cases of slander currency, whenever the drawer of the lie was not to be found, the injured party should have a right to come on any of the indorsers."
By far the most remarkable chapter, however, in the literary part of the book, is that entitled Unfinished Plays and
Poems,' in which Mr Moore has gratified his readers with a variety of very curious and interesting extracts from his author's papers, that have never hitherto seen the light. Many of those, as it appears to us, have very great merit, and deserve to be recorded as fragments of a master's hand- and all have considerable value, as illustrating the character of the author's genius, and his habits of composition. There is a sketch of a drama founded on the Vicar of Wakefield, bearing date so early as the author's seventeenth year. There are also three acts of another drama, or opera, of a very wild and fantastic natureabout outlaws, hermits, and imprisoned damsels-from which more extracts are here given than we think worthy of preservation—though some of the songs are pretty. The date of this performance is uncertain; but it undoubtedly belongs also to the period of his early youth. There are, besides, some fragments of another opera, called “ The Foresters,' which seems to have been intended as an improvement on the precedingand never to have been carried very far. But by far the most curious and valuable of these posthumous treasures are the fragments, or loose materials rather, for a Comedy on Affectation-on which the author appears to have bestowed more than usual thought and reflection.
• In this projected comedy,' says Mr Moore, he does not seem to have advanced as far as even the invention of the plot or the composition of a single scene. The memorandum book alluded to—on the first leaf of which he had written in his neatest hand (as if to encourage himself to begin) “ Affectation "-contains, besides the names of three of the intended personages, Sir Babble Bore, Sir Peregrine Paradox, and Feignwit, nothing but unembodied sketches of character, and scattered particles of wit, which seem waiting, like the imperfect forms and seeds in chaos, for the brooding of genius to nurse them into system and beauty.
• The reader will not, I think, be displeased at seeing some of these curious materials here. They will show that in this work, as well as in the School for Scandal, he was desirous of making the vintage of his wit as rich as possible, by distilling into it every drop that the collected fruits of his thought and fancy could supply. Some of the jests are farfetched, and others, perhaps, abortive—but it is pleasant to track him in his pursuit of a point, even when he misses. The very failures of a man of real wit are often more delightful than the best successes of othersthe quicksilver, even in escaping from his grasp, slines; “ It still eludes him, but it glitters still."
There are a prodigious number of smart sayings, and not a few very clever thoughts in those singular memoranda- though almost all affording examples of that studied and epigrammatic turn which we have already noticed as infecting much of Sheridan's wit with a cast of mannerism. We cannot deprive our readers of the gratification of some extracts from this newly discovered hoard of pleasantry. The following are very lively sketches of character, of which much might have been made in action.
“ One who changes sides in all arguments the moment any one agrees with him.-An irrresolute arguer, to whom it is a great misfortune that there are not three sides to a question—a libertine in argument; conviction, like enjoyment, palls him, and his rakish understanding is soon satiated with truth-more capable of being faithful to a paradox—I love truth as I do my wife; but sophistry and paradoxes are my mistresses I have a strong domestic respect for her, but for the other the passion due to a mistress.'-One, who agrees with every one, for the pleasure of speaking their sentiments for them -so fond of talking that he does not contradict only because he can't wait to hear people out.--A tripping casuist, who veers by others breath, and gets on to information by tacking between the two sides—like a hoy, not made to go straight before the wind.—The more he talks, the farther he is off the argument, like a bowl on a wrong bias.'
“ Then I hate to see one, to whom heaven has given real beauty, settling her features at the glass of fashion ; while she speaks, not thinking so much of what she says as how she looks, and more careful of the action of her lips than of what shall come from them.-A pretty woman studying looks, and endeavouring to recollect an ogle, like Lady who has learned to play her eyelids like Venetian blinds.
“ A true trained wit lays his plan like a general—foresees the circumstances of the conversation—surveys the ground and contingencies detaches a question to draw you into the palpable ambuscade of his ready-made joke.
“ A man intriguing, only for the reputation of it-He says to his confidential servant : · Who am I in love with now?' - The newspapers give you so and so—you are laying close siege to Lady L. in the Morning Post, and have succeeded with Lady G. in the Herald—Sir F. is very jealous of you in the Gazetteer.'—Remember to-morrow, the first you do, to put me in love with Mrs C.'—' I forgot to forget the billet-doux at Brooks's. '_By the bye, an't I in love with you?'— Lady L. has promised to meet me in her carriage to-morrow-where is the most public place?' – You were rude to her!'- Oh no, upon my soul, I made love to her directly.'- An old man, who affects intrigue, and writes his own reproaches in the Morning Post-trying to scandalize bimself into the reputation of being young, as if he could obscure his age by blotting his character, though never so little candid as when he's abusing himself,