Page images

Dramatic Poetry:

A curious question here occurs : How happens it that the emotions of sorrow in tragedy afford gratification to the mind ? It seems to be the constitution of our nature, that all the social passions should be attended with pleasure. Hence nothing is more pleasing than love and friendship. Pity is for wise ends a strong instinct ; and it necessarily produces some distress on account of its sympathy with sufferers. T'he heart is at the same moment warmed by kindness, and afllicted by distress. Upon the whole, the state of the mind is agreeable. We are pleased with ourselves, not only for our benevolence, but for our sensibility. The pain of simpathy is also diminished by recollecting that the distress is not real ; and by the power of action, and sentiment of language and poetry.

After treating of the acts of a play it is proper to notice the scenes.

The entrance of a new person upon the stage, forms wbat is called a new scene. These scenes or successive conversations should be closely connected; and much of the art of dramatic composition consists in maintaining this connection. For this purpose two rules must be observed. 1. During the course of one act the stage should never be left empty a moment, for this would make a gap in the representation. Whenever the stage is evacuated, the act is closed. This rule is generally observed by French tragedians; but it is much neglected by the English. 2. No person

the stage, or leave it, without some apparent reason. If this rule be neglected, the dramatis persone are little better than so many puppets ; for the drama professes imitation of real transactions.

should come upon



To unity of action, critics have added the unities of time and place. Unity of place requires the scene never to be shifted; that the action of the play continue in the same place where it began. Unity of time, strictly taken, requires that the time of the action be no longer than the time allowed for the representation of the play. Aristotle however permits the action to comprehend a whole day. These rules are intended to bring the imitation nearer to reality.

Among the Greeks there was no division of acts. In modern times the practice has prevailed of suspending the spectacle some little time between the acts. This practice gives latitude to the im-agination, and renders strict confinement to time and place less necessary. Upon this account therefore too strict an observance of these unities should not be preferred to higher beauties of execution, nor to the introduction of more pathetic situations. But transgressions of these anities, though they may be often advantageous, ought not to be too frequent, nor violent. Hurrying the spectator from one distant city to another, or making several days or weeks pass during the representation, would shock the imagination too. much, and therefore cannot be allowed in a dramatio writer.

Having examined dramatic action, we shall now attend to the characters most proper to be exhibited in a tragedy. Several critics affirm that the nature of tragedy requires the principal personages to be always of high or princely rank; as the sufferings of such persons seize the heart most forcibly. But this is more specious than solid. For the distresses of Desdemona, Monimia,


and Belvidera, interest us as much as if they had been princesses or queens. It is sufficient, that in tragedy there be nothing degrading or mean in the personages exhibited. High rank may render the spectacle more splendid; but it is the tale itself, and the art of the poet, that make it interesting and pathetic.

In describing his characters, the poet should be careful so to order the incidents which relate to them, as to impress the spectators with favourable ideas of virtue, and of the divine administration. Pity should be raised for the virtuous in distress; and the author should studiously beware of making such representations of life as would render virtue an object of aversion.

Unmixed characters, either of good or ill men, are not, in the opinion of Aristotle, fit for tragedy. For the distresses of the former, aś unmerited, hurt us, and the sufferings of the latter excite no compassion. Mixed characters afford the best field for displaying, without injury to morals, the vicissitudes of life. They interest us the most deeply ; and their distresses are most instructive when represented as springing out of their own passions, or as originating in some weakness incident to human nature.

The Greek tragedies are often founded on mere destiny and inevitable misfortunes. Modern tragedy aims at a higher object, and takes a wider range ; as it shows the direful effects of ambition, jealousy, love, resentment, and every strong emotion. But of all the passions which furnish mat

. ter for tragedy, love has most occupied the mod. ern stage. To the ancient theatre love was almost unknown. This proceeded from the nation


al manners of the Greeks, which encouraged a greater separation of the sexes than takes place in modern times; and did not admit female actors upon the ancient stage; a circumstance which operated against the introduction of love stories. No solid reason, however, can be assigned for this predominancy of love upon the stage. Indeed it not only limits the natural extent of tragedy, but degrades its majesty. Mixing it with the great and solemn revolutions of human fortune, tends to give tragedy the air of gallantry and juvenile entertainment. Without any assistance from love, the drama is capable of producing its highest effects upon the mind.

Beside the arrangement of his subject, and the conduct of his personages, the tragic poet must attend to the propriety of his sentiments. These must be suited to the characters of the persons to whom they are attributed, and to the situations in which they are placed. It is chiefly in the pathetic parts, that the difficulty and importance of this rule are greatest. We go to a tragedy, expecting to be moved; and, if the poet cannot reach the heart, he has no tragic merit; and we return cold and disappointed from the performance.

To paint and to excite passion strongly, are prerogatives of genius. They require not only ardent sensibility, but the power of entering deeply into characters. It is here that candidates for the drama are least successful. A man under the agitation of passion makes known his feelings in the glowing language of sensibility. He does not coolly describe what his feelings are; yet this sort of secondary description tragic poets often give us instead of the primary and native language



of passion. Thus in Addison's Cato, when Lucia confesses to Portius her love for him, but swears that she never will marry him, Portius, instead of giving way to the language of grief and astonishment, only describes his feelings :

Fix'din astonishment I gaze upon thee,
Like one just blasted by a stroke from heaven,
Who pants for breath, and stiffens yet alive
In dreadful looks ; a monumeut of wrath.

This might have proceeded from a bystander, eran indifferent person; but it is altogether improper in the mouth of Portius. Similar to this deseriptive language are the unnatural and forced thoughts, which tragic poets sometimes employ to exaggerate the feelings of persons whom they wish to paint as strongly moved. Thus when Jane Shore on meeting her husband in distress and finding that he had forgiven her, calls on the rains to give her their drops, and to the springs to lend her their streams, that she may have a constant supply of tears; we see plainly that it is not Jaye Shore that speaks ; but the poet him

; self, who is straining his fancy, and spurring up bis genius, to say something uncommonly strong and lively.

The language of real passion is always plain and simple. It abounds indeed in figures, that express a disturbed and impetuous state of mind but never employs any for parade and embellishment. Thoughts, suggested by passion, are natural and obvious; and not the offsping of refinement, subtilty, and wit. Passion neither reasons, speculates, nor declaims; its language is short, broken, and interrupted. The French tragedians deal toa

« EelmineJätka »