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to require that knowledge of human nature and the world which experience alone can give, it seems not a little extraordinary that nearly all our first-rate comedies should have been the productions of very young men. Those of Congreve were all written before he was five-and-twenty. Farquhar produced the Constant Couple in his two-and-twentieth year, and died at thirty. Vanbrugh was a young ensign when he sketched out the Relapse and the Provoked Wife, and Sheridan crowned his reputation with the School for Scandal at six-and-twenty.
It is, perhaps, still more remarkable to find, as in the instance before us, that works which, at this period of life, we might suppose to have been the rapid offspring of a careless, but vigorous fancy-anticipating the results of experience by a sort of second-sight inspirationshould, on the contrary, have been the slow result of many and doubtful experiments, gradually unfolding beauties unforeseen even by him who produced them, and arriving, at length, step by step, at perfection. That such was the tardy process by which the School for Scandal was produced, will appear from the first sketches of its plan and dialogue, which I am here enabled to lay before the reader, and which cannot fail to interest deeply all those who take delight in tracing the alchemy of genius, and in watching the first slow workings of the menstruum, out of which its finest transmutations arise.'
The last remark leads to the charge we have already noticed, of the extraordinary labour with which all his good things were prepared, and patiently worked up to perfection. There has been, we suspect, a good deal of exaggeration about this; and even Mr Moore has perhaps contributed to give an impression of his author's habitual study and dependence on long preparation, considerably stronger than the true state of the case would authorize. He, who was for thirty years the most brilliant talker-the greatest conversational wit of the splendid circle in which he moved-could not possibly have been a man to whom preparation was generally necessary in order to shine; and cannot be suspected of having had a cold or sluggish fancy, which did not give its golden harvests till it was diligently laboured and manured. His conceptions, on the contrary, seem always to have flowed from him with gre copiousness and rapidity. But he had taste as well as genius-and ambition as well as facility. He was not always satisfied with the first suggestions of his mind: but his labour was almost always employed, not in making what was bad, tolerable,-but in making what was good, better, and best. It was on the favourites of his fancy that he lavished his cares- and their object uniformly was, to improve beauties rather than remove defects. It was when he was captivated with his spontaneous thoughts, and not when he was dissatisfied with them, that he elaborated their expression, and took pains to bring them out with every advantage of diction and collocation. He dallied fondly with the ideas of which he was most proud, and employed himself very patiently in polishing the diamonds which had been brought to light by the richness of his native vein. This is quite a different kind of work from that of a drudge, who can do nothing extempore; and is perfectly consistent with the character, not only of a prompt and ready genius, but of a man generally impatient of study or application, and really incapable of succeeding in those pursuits in which study and application are indispensable. The one is like the labour by which wealth is anxiously acquired :—the other, like that by which it is spent with taste' or magnificence. Sheridan had all his rich materials from the spontaneous bounty of Nature: his only care was to arrange and display them to advantage ;- and when a man is once in love with a thought, he is not apt to grudge the time spent in dressing it with all the splendour and exactness he can afford. Nothing, accordingly, is more common than instances of this elaboration, in individuals the farthest removed from all suspicion of slowness or penury of invention. Ariosto, the most original and prolific of the Continental poets, is said to have written the first stanza of his Orlando ten or twelve times over;- and the same daring and ready hands that covered the Roman frescoes with their swift and unchangeable creations, have left innumerable traces of the minutest labour and most fastidious corrections, in the finishing of other works, over which, in a different mood, it was their pleasure, or their fancy, to linger.
But though we think these little fits of irregular industrythis occasional polishing and pointing of favourite sentences-to be no impeachment either of his natural fertility, or his habitual indolence, we are inclined to hold that no small part of his success, as a comic dramatist, may be referred to the union of these two undoubted traits in his intellectual character. The natural bent of his genius was plainly to splendid and glaring imagery ;-and if it had been fostered by serious study or scholastic discipline, would probably have led to the adoption of a florid, lofty, and perhaps bombastic style-extremely remote, at all events
, from the colloquial familiarity which is indispensable to the diction, or even the existence of Comedy. His social habits, however, and indolent disposition, corrected this propensity; and though it broke out occasionally, to the last, in his more ambitious efforts, it was, on the whole, so tempered and subdued by the effeets of his gay and idle life, as merely to lend force and originality to the lighter effusions of his fancy. If the peculiarities of his style were to be strictly analyzed, its chief merit, we are persuaded, would be found to arise from the union or balance of these opposite qualities. He was the 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 itselfwhere 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 conrse 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 pass 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 :