Page images
PDF
EPUB

There are two kinds of comedy, that of character, and that of intrigue. In the last, the plot or action of the play is the principal object. In the first, the dis play of a peculiar character is the chief point; and to this the action is subordinate. The French abound most in comedies of character. Such are the capital pieces of Moliere. The English have inclined more to comedies of intrigue. Such are the plays of Congreve and in general there is more story, action, and bustle in English, than in French comedy.

The perfection of comedy is to be found in a proper mixture of these two kinds. Mere conversation without an interesting story is insipid. There should ever be so much intrigue, as to excite both fears and wishes. The incidents should be striking, and afford a proper field for the exhibition of character. The piece how. ever should not be overcharged with intrigue; for this would be to convert a comedy into a novel.

With respect to characters it is a common error of comic writers, to carry them much beyond real life; indeed it is very difficult to hit the precise point, where wit ends, and buffoonery begins. The comedian may exaggerate; but good sense must teach him where to stop. C

The

[ocr errors]

1.

In comedy there ought to be a clear distinction in characters. The contrast of characters however by pairs, and by opposites, is too theatrical and affected. It is the perfection of art to conceal art. A masterly

writer gives us his characters, distinguished rather by such shades of diversity, as are commonly found in society, than marked by such oppositions, as are seldom brought into actual contrast in any of the circumstan ces of life.

The style of comedy ought to be pure, lively, and elegant, generally imitating the tone of polite conversation, and never descending into gross expressions. Rhyme is not suitable to comic composition; for what has poetry to do with the conversation of men in com. mon life? The current of the dialogue should be easy without pertness, and genteel without flippancy. The wit should never be studied, nor unseasonable.

ANCIENT COMEDY.

THE ancient comedy was an avowed satire against particular persons, brought upon the stage by name. Such are the plays of Aristophanes; and compositions of so singular a nature illustrate well the turbulent and licentious state of Athens. The most illustrious personages, generals and magistrates, were then made the subjects of comedy. Vivacity, satire, and buffoonery are the characteristics of Aristophanes. On many occasions he displays genius and force; but his performances give us no high idea of the attic taste for wit in his age. His ridicule is extravagant; his

[ocr errors]

wit farcical; his personal raillery cruel and biting; and his obscenity intolerable.

Soon after the age of Aristophanes the liberty of attacking persons by name on the stage was prohibited by law. The middle comedy then took its rise. Living persons were still attacked, but under fictitious names. Of these pieces we have no remains. They were succeeded by the new comedy; when it became as it is now, the business of the stage to exhibit manners and characters, but not those of particular persons. The author of this kind, most celebrated among the Greeks, was Menander; but his writings are perished.

I

Of the new comedy of the ancients, the only remains are the plays of Plautus and Terence. The first is eminent for the vis comica, and for an expressive phraseology. He bears, however, many marks of the rudeness of the dramatic art in his time. He has too much low wit and scurrility; and is by far too quaint and full of conceit. He has more variety and more force than Terence; and his characters are strongly marked, though sometimes coarsely.

}

Terence is polished, delicate, and elegant. His style is a model of the most pure and graceful latinity. His dialogue is always correct and decent; and his relations have a picturesque and beautiful simplicity. His morality is in general unexceptionable; his situations are interesting; and many of his sentiments touch the heart. He may considered as the founder of seri

ous comedy. In sprightness and strength, he is deficient. There is a sameness in his characters and plots; and he is said to have been inferior to Menander, whom he copied. To form a perfect comic author, the spirit and fire of Plautus ought to be united with the grace and correctness of Terence.

SPANISH COMEDY.

man.

THE most prominent object in modern comedy is the Spanish theatre. The chief comedians of Spain are Lopez de Vega, Guillen and Calderon. The first, who is the most famous of them, wrote above a thousand plays; and was infinitely more irregular than Shakespeare. He totally disregarded the three unities, and every established rule of dramatic writing. One play often includes many years, and even the whole life of a The scene, during the first act is in Spain; the 'next in Italy; and the third in Africa. His plays are chiefly historical, and are a mixture of heroic speeches, serious incidents, war and slaughter, ridicule and buf. foonery. He jumbles together christianity and paganism, virtues and vices, angels and gods. Notwithstanding his faults, he possessed genius, and great force of imagination. Many of his characters are well painted; many of his situations are happy; and from the source of his rich invention dramatic writers of other nations have frequently drawn their materials. He was con

scious himself of his extreme irregularities, and apolo gized for them from the prevailing taste of his country

men.

FRENCH COMEDY.

THE comic theatre of France is allowed to be cor rect, chaste, and decent. The comic author, in whom the French glory most, is Moliere. In the judgment of French critics he has nearly reached the summit of perfection in his art. Nor is this the decision of mere partiality. Moliere is the satirist only of vice and folly. His characters were peculiar to his own times; and in general his ridicule was justly directed. His comic powers were great; and his pleasantry is always innocent. His Misanthrope and Tartuffe are in verse, and constitute a kind of dignified comedy, in which vice is exposed in the style of elegant and polite satire. In his prose comedies there is a profusion of ridicule; but the poet never gives alarm to modesty, nor casts contempt on virtue. With these high qualities however considerable defects are mingled. In unravelling his plots he is unhappy; as this is frequently brought on with too little preparation, and in an improbable manner. In his verse comedies he is not always sufficiently interesting; and he is too full of long speeches. In his risible pieces in prose he is too farcical. But upon the whole it may be affirmed, that few writers

« EelmineJätka »