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and Porrex,’ admits that it is ‘full of stately speeches and well-sounding phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca his stile, and full of notable morality, which it doth most delightfully teach.' . It is not indeed surprising that this first attempt to imitate or emulate the regular or classic tragedy should have been highly extolled at the time, especially by those who inculcated by formal precept a general imitation of the antique models; but certain it is, that, both as to incident and dialogue, the piece is laboriously heavy; the speeches are of most tedious length, and the thoughts and sentiments very trite and commonplace. It is however worthy of especial notice, that this was the first play in the English language the dialogue of which was written in blank verse. This, again, in all probability was owing to the earnest endeavour which the authors were making to follow the method of the antients. This tragedy was followed almost immediately by “Julius Caesar, the earliest instance on record in which events from the Roman history were dramatised in English, although the precise nature of this performance, of which we have nothing but the mention in an old MS. chronicle, cannot be ascertained. It is doubtful, however, whether both these pieces were not preceded by a tragedy founded on Luigi da Porto's famous tale of ‘’’Romeo and Juliet.' From about this date until shortly after 1570, the dramatic field seems to have been pretty equally divided between the later moral-plays and the earlier attempts in o comedy, and history. In some pieces of this date and a little later, as already shown, endeavours were made to reconcile or combine the two kinds of composition; but afterwards the morals generally gave way to the more popular and intelligible species of performance. We find precedence given to the latter in the license to James Burbage and others in 1574, in its mention of comedies, tragedies, interludes, and stageplays; and in the act of common council of the following year against theatrical performances in the city they are designated as ‘interludes, tragedies, comedies, and shows.’
Still the terms tragedy and comedy, in general acceptation, remained far from the strictness of signification attached to them by the professed inculcators, by example or precept, of the imitation of the antients. It is observable, however, that comedy was from the beginning used in a more comprehensive sense than tragedy, being in fact very often employed as synonymous with the general designation of play. It is plain, even from the instances we have already cited, that, for a long period, any play might without impropriety be termed a comedy, though none but a serious pièce was ever called a tragedy. Hence it was, that, as late as 1578, Thomas Lupton called his moral-play of “All for Money’ both a comedy and a tragedy; and hence it is, that Shakspeare makes Hamlet, after he has had the tragedy exhibited before the king and queen, exclaim,
* For if the king like not the comedy,’ &e.
Not only, however, was the tragic element, as we here see, by no means excluded from what was at that time understood as comedy; but the comic, as we find, both from examining the productions of the time, and from the testimony of the contemporary critics, was employed without reserve in tragedy. Thus Sir Philip Sidney, the most distinguished at that day among the English champions of the classic school, in his ‘Apology of Poetry,’ written, as already mentioned, about 1583, after inveighing severely against the total disregard, by the English dramatists, of the unities of time and place, felt himself called upon to add:—“But besides these gross absurdities, how all their plays be neither right tragedies nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns, not because the matter so carrieth it, but thrust in the clown by head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters with neither decency nor discretion; so as neither the admiration and commiseration, nor right sportfulness, is by their mongrel tragi-comedy obtained.”
Small as is the value now-a-days of this critical opinion of Sidney's, it affords; an interesting and conclusive testimony as to the essentially romantic character of the rising drama, which we thus; find it to have thoroughly, and, as the classic advocates deemed, incorrigibly, assumed at least ten years before Shakspeare, who by some has been supposed to have impressed that character upon it, became an original writer for the stage. The vast variety of matters embraced by the dramatists of that day, and of sources from which they drew, is perfectly expressed in the prologue to the ‘Royal King and Loyal Subject, one of the earlier pro
ductions of Thomas Heywood, who became a writer for the stage some years before the death of Elizabeth. Sidney says nothing of the performance of miracle-plays in his time; but we know from many other authorities, that while the romantic drama was thus establishing itself, and moral-plays were still frequently exhibited, pieces founded on Scripture history continued to be represented. The latter, however, already confined chiefly to country places, soon ceased altogether; nor have we any specimen of what can strictly be termed a moral-play subsequent to the death of Elizabeth. We have now traced the progress of the English stage from its ecclesiastical and religious origin until it became almost exclusively a mirror of actual life, and attained as those dramatic and theatrical forms which most prominently characterized the later and fuller maturity of our elder modern drama. It was in the same year, 1583, wherein Sidney wrote his ‘Apology,’ that Elizabeth first allowed a public company to act under her name and authority. the dramatic writers who flourished in the brief interval between this period and that of the fullest development of Shakspeare's genius, with one exception, did nothing importantly to alter or improve dramatic art, it is needless to enlarge upon the various kinds and degrees of ment which made a number of them, as Kyd, Lodge, Greene, Lyly, Peele, Nash, Chettle, Munday, Wilson, &c., highly popular and celebrated in their own time. Immediate predecessors of Shakspeare, they have long been lost, necessarily and deservedly, “in the near effulgence of his blaze.” The single exception that we are called upon to make is in favour of Christopher Marlow, of whom we must observe, not only that his works exhibit greater vigour both of conception and of language than belongs to any of his contemporaries, but also that he was the first who established the use of blank verse upon the public stage, in lieu of that exclusive rhyming which possessed it before he wrote. The collection of Shakspeare's plays, as commonly printed, affords the grandest and most instructive study possible of the progress of the romantic drama from the crudeness of its early state to the blended richness of its full maturity. In this view, even those pieces in that collec. tion in the composition of which Shakspeare is known to have had little or no concern, become extremely interesting Such plays as the “First Part of Henry VI.,” “Pericles of Tyre,’ and “Titus Andronicus,’ for instance, if not highly favourable, are not unfair specimens of the state of the art when Shakspeare was first introduced to its acquaintance: the ‘Second’ and “Third Part of Henry VI.,’ ‘King John,' &c., show us in progressive gradation the rapid development of his wonderful power of infusing a spirit of life into a production which came into his hands a piece of cold, heavy, mechanical, and often incongruous composition. In the “Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ &c. we have the first free spontaneous flowings from his own peculiar and delightful spring of dramatic poesy, “unmixed with baser matter;' and then, proceeding onward, still rising as we proceed, we pass through those greater historical compositions, whether from English or Roman history, which display so deep an insight into national as well as individual character, and into the personal springs of political transactions; then through those pieces founded on romantic story, as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Othello,' &c., fraught with all the depth, the wildness, and the richness of vehement passion; until we reach the grandest and most profound of his dramatic creations, where, in boundless diversity, the beauties and the deformities, the glory and the emptiness, of human existence, are unfolded in the tender o of a compassionate sym: pathy, as in ‘The Tempest,' or disclosed with more awful depth and unsparing though beautiful rigour in Macbeth,' in “Lear,’ in ‘Timon of Athens,” or in ‘Hamlet.’ Indeed, as the compositions of Shakspeare form the most elevated region of dramatic poetry in that age, so the play of ‘Hamlet’ may, we think, be taken as the highest sunmit of that region. It seems to present the finest example of the depth, sublimity, refinement, and variety of which the romantic drama is capable; and it is the most abun: dantly marked with those peculiar characteristics which sprang from the union, in the person of its author, of such wonderful dramatic powers with such familiar and thorough experience of theatrical management. Thus, besides its exalted interest in a poetical view, it is singularly valuable as an historical study of dramatic and histrionic art.
Here Shakspeare exhibits to us even the relation in which
the lord chamberlain stood to the players; and from the pedantic enumeration which Polonius's loguacity gives us of the various kinds of pieces which the actors whom Hamlet engages could perform, we gather what was then the established mode of classifying dramatic productions. “The best actors in the world,” says Polonius, ‘either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical, scene individable, or poem unlimited.’ The latter part of this nomenclature, indeed, seems chiefly the offspring of the chamberlain's own pedantic and talkative affectation: it is to the three leading distinctions of tragedy, comedy, and history, that we should principally attend. Of Shakspeare's younger contemporaries and competitors few have transmitted a living memorial of their works to osterity: the principal are #. Jonson, Beaumont and 'letcher, and M. Jonson demands our more particular notice as the chief advocate and practiser, among the old English dramatists, of the imitation of the antients—as standing indeed almost alone among them in that respect, and so earning Milton's well-known characterization in “L’Allegro’ of ‘Jonson’s learned sock.' Totally different as Jonson was from Shakspeare, both in his views of dramatic art and in his poetical constitution, he yet found a ready encourager in the latter, who was so far superior to all petty jealousy and rivalry. It was by Shakspeare's intervention that Jonson's first piece was brought upon the stage; a second even received touches from his hand; and in both he undertook the performance of a principal character. We have two tragical attempts of Jonson, and a number of comedies and masks. He could have risen to the dignity of the tragic tone, but had no turn for the pathetic. It is curious to observe how much, while he was constantly preaching up the imitation of the antients, his two tragedies differ both in substance and form from the antique models: we see here the irresistible influence which the prevailing tone of an age and the course already pursued in an art must exercise upon even the most independent minds. In the historical extent given by Jonson to his ‘Sejanus’ and his “Cataline, unity .#time and place were altogether out of the question; and both pieces are crowded with a number of secondary personages. In ‘Cataline,’ indeed, the prologue is spoken by the spirit of Sylla, and much resembles that of Tantalus in the ‘Atreus and Thyestes’ of Seneca; while to the end of each act a moralizing chorus is appended, but not duly introduced or connected with the whole. This is all the resemblance to the antients; in other respects the form of Shakspeare's historical dramas is adhered to, but without their romantic charm. “Cataline’ and ‘Sejanus' are in fact solid dramatic studies after Sallust and Cicero, and after Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, &c.; but their author had not learned from Shakspeare the art of remaining true to history and yet satisfying the demands of poetry. Jonson was a strong advocate for the purity of the species, that is, for the alleged classical circumscription of tragedy and comedy; yet he had little talent for comedy in the antique spirit, and accordingly the later Roman satirists were his models rather than the comic writers. Fancy was less powerful in him than the spirit of observation, and hence in plot and incident he is often defective. He possessed a methodical head, and accordingly, when he had conceived a character in its leading idea, he followed out that idea with a strictness which excluded whatever might merely serve to give individual animation. He generally seized with accuracy the manners of his own age and country; but he attached himself so much to external peculiarities, then called humours, that a great part of his comic delineations soon became obsolete: his Captain Bobadil, however, in “Every Man in his Humour,’ forms an exception to this remark; and though less original and entertaining than Falstaff’s comrade, Pistol, he is nevertheless a model in his way, and has been imitated by subsequent writers. In the masks of that day there seems to have been something congenial to the learned and rather frigid spirit of Jonson, and he was more distinguished in their composition than any other writer of the period: these were allegorical occasional pieces, usually designed for court festivals, decorated with machinery, masked dresses, dancing, and singing. This secondary dramatic species nearly expired with Jonson: the only subsequent production in this way of any celebrity is the Comus of Milton. It is no mean honour to Beaumont and Fletcher, that after Shakspeare, who stands alone in all dramatic history,
they are entitled to the highest place among the romantic dramatists of England. They seem o; to have had almost every dramatic quality short of that marvellously unerring instinct which Shakspeare possessed, and which appears to be vouchsafed to few. They began their career in Shakspeare's lifetime; Beaumont indeed died before him, and Fletcher survived him only nine or ten years. They followed his example in the whole form of their plays, regardless of the different principles of Ben Jonson and the imitation of the antients. Like him, they drew from tales and romances: they mingled burlesque with pathetic scenes, and endeavoured, by the concatenation of the incidents, to give an impression of the extraordinary and the wonderful. Shakspeare's own fame was in some degree eclipsed by them in the generation which immediately succeeded him; and in the time of Charles the Second they possessed a still greater proportion of popularity. “Beaumont and Fletcher,’ remarks Schlegel, “were in fact men of the most distinguished talents: they hardly wanted any thing but a more profound seriousness of mind, and that sagacity in art id: observes a due measure in every thing, to deserve a place beside the greatest dramatic poets of all nations. They possessed an uncommon fecundity and flexibility, and a felicitous ease, which however too often degenerated into levity. Poetry with them was not an inward devotion of the feelings and imagination, but a means to obtain brilliant results. Their first object was effect, which the great artist can hardly fail of attaining if he is determined above all things to satisfy himself. They were not players, like most of their predecessors, but they lived in the neighbourhood of the theatre, were in constant intercourse with it, and so had a perfect understanding of theatrical matters. They were also thoroughly acquainted with their contemporaries; but they found it more convenient to lower themselves to the public than to follow, in this particular, the example of Shakspeare, who, elevated the public to himself. They are least successful in their tragic attempts, because their feeling is not sufficiently drawn from the depths of human nature, and because they bestowed too little attention on the general consideration of human destinies: they succeed ...i better in comedy, and in those serious and pathetic pictures which occupy a middle place between comedy and tragedy. The morality of these writers is ambiguous. Not that they failed to contrast in strong colours magnanimity and goodness with baseness and wickedness, or did not usually conclude with the disgrace and punishment of the latter; but they often exhibit an ostentatious generosity in lieu of duty and justice. Every thing good and excellent arises in their pictures more from transient ebullition than from fixed principle; they seem to place the virtues in the blood; and impulses of a merely selfish and instinct-like nature holā up their heads quite close to them as if they were of kindred origin. There is an incurably vulgar side of human nature which the poet should never approach but with a certain bashfulness when he cannot avoid letting it be perceived; but instead of this, Beaumont and Fletcher throw no veil whatever over nature: they express every thing bluntly in words; they make the spectator the unwilling confidant of all that more noble minds endeavour even to hide from themselves. The indecencies in which these poets allowed themselves to indulge exceed all conception: the licentiousness of the language is the least evil; many scenes, nay, even whole plots, are so contrived, that the very idea of them, not to mention the sight, is a gross insult to modesty. Their pieces had this convenience for performance in their time, that such great actors were not necessary to fill the principal characters as in Shakspeare's plays. To bring them on the stage in our days, it would be necessary to recast the greater part of them : with some of them we might succeed by omitting, moderating, and purifying various passages.” Massinger, Shirley, Ford, and such other of the younger contemporaries of Shakspeare as we have not yet mentioned, have no characteristics sufficiently distinctive to admit of their being particularized in this general survey. There was then a grand school of dramatic art in England, of which Shakspeare was the real, though too frequently unacknowledged, head; for Ben Jonson had scarcely a successor. One effect of mannerism in art is, to efface the marks of individual originality, and make the productions of various artists resemble each other; and from this mannerism no dramatic poet of that age who succeeded Shakspeare is altogether free. Nevertheless, in a general view of dramatic art, this first period of the English theatre is far the most important: it can hardly be doubted that some even of the secondary writers of that time are more instructive for theory and more remarkable in practice than the most celebrated of all the succeeding times. Such was the general eondition of the stage during the reign of Charles I. down to the year 1642, when the invectives of the puritans, who had long murmured against the theatre, and at last thundered loudly against it, were changed into prohibitory law; and in 1648 not only to act plays, but even to witness them, was made a penal offence. Nearly all the players now took arms on that side the interests of which seemed identified with the existence of their own profession. Many of them perished in the field; and after the final close of the war, one eompany of actors only was formed out of the remains of all the former ones, and occasionally, with great circumspection, performed at private mansions in the vicinity of London. Davenant as manager, and Betterton as cctor, form a slender link of connection between the old stage and that of the Restoration. Charles II. being considered, in his relation to the theatre, as a sort of restoring and tutelar deity, its character was now formed in absolute deference to the half foreign and wholly vicious taste of himself and his courtiers. Under these auspices, Davenant introduced the Italian system of decoration, the costume as then understood, the opera music, and the use of the orchestra in general. A still more important innovation in theatrical arrangements was, the permanent adoption of the practice, against which the puritans had directed the most violent of their anti-dramatic fury, but which had long been established in Italy, Spain, and France, of having the female parts personated by women instead of boys. At the same iime, Betterton was sent over to Paris expressly to take a view of the French stage, in order to such other modifications of the English as the inspection might suggest. The result of this great neglect of the old dramatic and theatrical system of England, and assiduous study of that of France, was, for a long period, an almost entire denationalization, both in form and spirit, of the current dramatic literature. Davenant himself, who had resided very much at Paris, seems to have acquired this exotic taste long before the Restoration, as it is fully exhibited, amongst others of his productions, in his operatic piece, ‘The Siege of Rhodes,' performed as early as 1656. Hence, in the theatrical restoration which accompanied the political, he set himself cordially to work, by No. old pieces, and writing new plays, operas, prologues, &c., to contribute towards the furnishing of that new theatrical repertory which the new dramatic system required. Of all his works, however, nothing has escaped a meritcd oblivion. It was left for the industry and fertility of Dryden to give the new theatre a thorough establishment according to the new ideas, a task to which he applied himself with all possible diligence both by example and precept. The numerous essays on dramatic art which accompanied the publication of his several pieces, together with the larger treatise which he put forth separately, exhibit in a remarkable manner the anarchy j then prevailed in the notions of that art which then pervaded the public mind. The court indeed, whose taste it was now the leading object of the dramatic writers to seize and to follow, had no real knowledge of the fine arts; it merely favoured them, like other foreign fashions and inventions of luxury. Hence the drama of the day became a strange compound of the extreme license of the later writers of the earlier English school with the conventional stiffness and formality of the French, but without any of the natural and vigorous spirit which had animated either of those models. Dryden's fatal facility of rhyming, as in this case it may well be termed, materially aided him in effecting this incongruous combination, to which the absence in him of the highest poetic spirit likewise essentially conduced. It may be observed of his plays in general, that the plots are grossly improbable, and the incidents thrown out at random, while the most marvellous theatrical strokes drop, as it were, incessantly from the clouds. Scarcely a spark of nature is
* This assertion has been verified in a very recent instance by the successful
roduction, at the Haymarket Theatre, of 'The Bridal,' a recasting of ‘The W. Tragedy' of Beaumont and Fletcher. Their Rule a Wife and have a Wife' has kept the stage by similar means It has also been brought upon the German stage, having been re-written by Schröder under the title of ‘Still Waters are Deep' (Stille JPasser sind Tief), and, when well acted, has always as Sehlegel informs us, been extremely well received.
to be found in any of his characters: passions, criminal and magnanimous, flow with indifferent levity from their lios without ever having dwelt in the heart: their chief deligit seems to be in heroical boasting. The tone of expression is by turns flat and madly bombastic: the author's wit is displayed in far-fetched sophisms, and his imagination in longspun similes awkwardly introduced. The Duke of Buck. ingham, who, amongst other vigorous though wayward and generally misapplied talents, possessed high powers of ridcule, undertook to satirize these faults and absurdities of Dryden and his school, in his comedy of “The Rehearsal.' wherein, although the structure of the piece itself migh; have been more artificial and diversified, the separate parodies are very ingenious and effective. But the best-aimed satire, though it might correct in some degree, could not regenerate the stage. This could have been done only by the arising of some greater and more genuine dramatic genius, or at least by the successful appearance of some very great actor, capable of entering fully into the spirit of the elder drama. “The Rehearsal’ might indeed contribute to produce that nearer approach to nature which, among the eompositions of Dryden's younger contemporaries, has preserved upon the stage one tragedy of Lee's and two of Otway's, while not one of Dryden's pieces has maintained its theatrical existence; but the essential constitution of the acting drama remained as before. The mixed romantic species being entirely laid asso, all was either tragedy or comedy. Dryden wrote comedies as well as tragedies; but as, with all his command of language and flow of rhyme, he did not possess in any perfection either the greatest dramatic or the highest poetical . his dramatic writings, in this kind as well as in the other, have fallen, if not into absolute oblivion, at least into entire neglect. Shadwell's seventeen comedies, though he affected to imitate Ben Jonson in exhibiting humorous and eccentric peculiarities of character, are deservedly forgotten. Wycherley, so much in favour both with Buckingham and King Charles, and afterwards with King James, had much more genuine pretensions to the higher and more vigorous order of comic power, notwithstanding that his greatest performance, “The Plain-dealer,’ is a sort of counterpart of Molière's ‘Misanthrope;' his next best piece, “The Country Wife,' has been retained upon the stage, by means of adaptation and purification, under the title of ‘The Country Girl.” Although the “Sir Fopling Flutter of Etherege is not yet forgotten, still Congreve deserves to be considered as the true father of ‘genteel comedy” on the English stage, and was long regarded as the great model for imitation in that department, to which distinction be was much less entitled by any lively and humorous delineation of natural character than by a perpetual reciprocation of wit in his dialogue, together with originality of plot, and novel combinations of factitious manners: he drew little from common life; but his portraits of sharpers and coquettes—of men without principle and women without delicacy—are but too faithful representations of the fine gentlemen and ladies of his day. His ‘Love for Love' is the only one of his pieces the licentiousness of which it has been found possible to prune sufficiently for performance in later years. Of the poetic spirit and the moral tone of English comedy during the period we have just reviewed, we shall state our opinion in the words of Schlegel, because we think it useful to show to the English reader in what light that particular portion of our dramatic literature is justly received and represented by so able a continental critic:—"The greatest merit of the English comic poets of this Period consists in the drawing of character; yet, though many of them have shown much talent in this way, I cannot ascribe to any of them a peculiar genius for character. Even in this department the older poets (not only Shakspeare, for that may well be supposed, but even Fletcher and Jonson) are supe: rior to them. The moderns seldom possess the faculty of seizing the most hidden and involuntary emotions, and iving them comic expression; they generally draw merely i. natural or assumed surface of men. The same circumstance that was attended with so prejudicial an effect in France after Molière's time came here also into play. The comic muse, instead of becoming familiar with the way of living of the middle and lower ranks, her proper sphere, assumed an air of distinction; she squeezed herself into courts, and endeavoured to snatch a resemblance of the beau monde. It was now no longer an English national,
but a London comedy. The whole nearly turns on fashionable love-suits and fashionable raillery; the love affairs are either disgusting or insipid, and the raillery is always puerile and devoid of humour. These comic writers may have accurately hit the tone of their time: in this they did their duty; but they have reared a lamentable memorial of their age. In few periods has taste in the fine arts been at so low an ebb as towards the close of the seventeenth century and during the first half of the eighteenth. The political machine held its course; wars, negotiations, and changes of states, give to that age a certain historic splendour; but the comic poets and the portrait-painters have revealed to us the secret of its pitifulness, the latter in their copies of the dresses, the former in their imitations of the social tone. I am convinced that if we could listen to the conversation of the beau monde of that day in the present, we should find it as pettily affected and full of tasteless pretension as the hoops, the towering head-dresses, and high-heeled shoes of the women, and the huge perruques, cravats, wide sleeves, and ribbon-knots of the men. The last, and not the least, defect of the English comedies is their indecency. I may sum up the whole in one word by saying, that after all that we know of the licentiousness of manners under Charles II., we still are lost in astonishment at the audacious ribaldry of Wycherley and Congreve. Not merely is decency, most grossly violated in single speeches, and freuently in the whole plot; but in the character of the rake, the fashionable débauchée, a moral scepticism is directly }. and marriage is the constant subject of ridicule. aumont and Fletcher portrayed a vigorous though irregular nature; but nothing can be more repulsive than rude depravity coupled with claims to higher refinement.” The continuance, and even increase, of this moral depravation of the drama produced at length, in 1698, a severe castigation from the pen of the sturdy nonjuror, Jeremy Collier, under the title of ‘A short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, together with the Sense of Antiquity on this Argument.” In this work, its author, armed with sufficient learning and sarcastic wit, attacked all the living dramatists from iryden to D'Urfey; and although some of them, including Congreve, less candid on this occasion than Dryden himself, set up a petulant and sophistical defence, yet this publication of Collier's had a permanent effect on the stage as well as on the public mind. This effect, however, was operated only by degrees. Vanburgh followed in the line of Congreve, and, in spite of Col. lier's animadversions, did so with little more regard either to morality or decorum, though mingling more humour with his wit. This unbounded license has long banished from the stage his ablest production, ‘The Confederacy,” while ‘The Provoked Wife' and “The Provoked Husband,' inferior in comic power, have survived by virtue of their greater decency. is contemporary, Farquhar, though displaying sufficient libertinism of language and sentiment, did not carry them to so gross an excess. Å. gentlemanly ease of manner, lively spontaneity of wit, natural though not strongly drawn character, and a felicitous, uninvolved construction of plot, are his peculiar characteristics, and have preserved ‘The Beaux' Stratagem’ and two other of his pieces in public favour to the present time. His ‘Sir Harry Wildair, too, was the legitimate successor of the ‘Sir Fopling Flutter' of the preceding generation; but in the true dramatic qualities Farquhar excels Etherege beyond all comparison. The Restoration period of English theatrical history had not only brought female performers for the first time before the public, but female dramatists also. The numerous comedies of Mrs. Behn, who wrote under Charles II., are remarkable only for the full share which they possess of the licentiousness of her time; nor need we remark upon two tragedies and a comedy, acted with some success, from the pen of Mrs. Manley, better known as a romantic memoir writer. But in Mrs. Centlivre, a prolific writer of comedy, exactly contemporary with Farquhar, we find more genuine dramatic talent, yet exhibited much more in a lively bustle of intrigue than in forcible delineation of character, although Marplot, in her ‘Busy Body, is still proverbial as a comic portrait, and some others of her plays, as “The Wonder,’ ‘A Bold Stroke for a Wife,’ &c., remain as well-known stock pieces. Just at the same pe. riod, also, Steele, among the other various exertions of his pen, wrote for the stage in a kindred spirit with Farquhar, but with inferior dramatic skill; and Cibber produced his best comedies. “The Careless Husband’ and “The NonP. C., No. 585,
juror' (a sort of adaptation of the ‘Tartuffe' of Molière), the very great success of which at that time was owing partly to its flattering the sentiments of the friends of the Hanoverian succession, and which, under an altered form and another title, “The Hypocrite,’ is still a favourite on the stage. Fielding, the novelist, commenced his literary career as a writer of comedy: he chiefly demands notice in dramatic history as one of the principal of those writers for the stage who afforded Sir Robert Walpole a pretext for obtaining the act to limit the number of theatres, and subject dramatic performances to the lord chamberlain's license, In a very similar predicament was Gay, after the appearance, in 1727, of his ‘Beggars' Opera.” Its professed object was, by way of burlesque, to ridicule the Italian Opera, which had been established and maintained at great expense, and was thought by many to be rising in hurtful rivalry with the national drama. But amidst the general satire on political and fashionable selfishness and depravity which this composition implied, the persons then in power took so much of it to themselves, th. while ‘The Beggars' Opera' had the unprecedented run of sixty-three successive nights, and transformed the actress who represented the heroine into a duchess, the lord chamberlain refused to license for performance a second part of it entitled “Polly.” This celebrated production, however, though still a standing favourite with the public, is now chiefly remarkable in dramatic his– tory as the prototype (unwittingly, it seems, on its author's o of a new species of dramatic composition upon the ritish stage, since known as “the English opera.' ' We must now revert for a moment to the history of modern English tragedy. After the example of Lee and Otway, Southern and Rowe endeavoured to return to a more natural tragic tone and style than those which Dryden had so long practised and inculcated. Southern even ventured to attempt the Shakspearian combination of the humorous and the ludicrous with the tragic, but was so deficient in that high mastery of the art which is necessary to accomplish this with success, that in his ‘Oroonoko," which, with another of his tragedies, under the altered title of ‘Isabella, or the Fatal Marriage,' has kept the stage, the comic portions, being merely inserted or stuck on rather than interwoven or blended, have been simply dropped in performance, without being at all missed by the audience. Rowe was an honest admirer of Shakspeare, and in his ‘Jane Shore' has even directly borrowed the part of Gloster from “Richard the Third.' Without boldness and vigour, he possessed sweetness and feeling: he could excite the softer emotions; and hence, in his ‘Fair Penitent” (a feeble remodelling, it must be observed, of Massinger’s ‘Fatal Dowry’), in ‘Jane Shore, and in ‘Lady Jane Grey,” he has successfully chosen the weaknesses of heroines for his subject. Addison’s ‘Cato," notwithstanding the great temporary celebrity and popularity which party rivalry conferred upon it, merits no attention in the history of dramatic art, except as having been the first, and, it should seem, the model, of a series of the most frigid productions in imitation of the French classic school, by Young, Johnson, Thomson, Glover, &c., that are to be found in our literary history. With some small poetic, they have no dramatic pretensions; yet the very excess of their formality and frigidity perhaps contributed to that decisive reaction of the public mind in favour of the elder dramatic school, which took place in the middle of the last century, and which now demands our attention. Garrick's restoration of Shakspeare to his rightful supremacy over the English theatre has entailed upon his countrymen a permanent debt of gratitude which is yet more glorious to the memory of that great performer than the idolatrous admiration of his contemporaries for his unrivalled histrionic powers. It was nothing less than the removal of one great mark, worn for eighty years before, of national degradation, morally and intellectually. Here, too, we have a signal instance of the great degree in which the dignity and prosperity of a national theatre at any given period may depend on the taste and genius of a single actor, especially when that actor becomes a leading manager also. In the instance in question this was more peculiarly and necessarily the case. 'W. the condition of the English stage for three generations before is considered, it is quite evident that no person but an actor of very high genius could achieve the theatrical resuscitation of the greatest of all dramatic poets. Had any such actor existed
at the restoration of Charles II, he might o have
done much to prevent the wretched denationalization of cast: a certain eccentric drollery of character and whimsical
the theatre which was so much favoured by that king's exotic and vitiated taste. But it was one of the vital and lasting injuries inflicted on the theatrical system by the puritanical suppression, that the old line of actors which had risen and flourished along with the great and vigorous dramatic school of the age of Elizabeth and James, and had intimately imbibed its healthy natural tone, had “grown with its growth, and strengthened with its strength,’ was violently i fatally interrupted: a new race of actors had to arise, who, not having, like their predecessors of the former period, the example and the awe of the great his trionic models of the old school before them, found it a much easier task to strut and rant in the delivery of unnatural bombast than to sound the depths and reach the delicacies of nature's favourite poet. tional facility was opened for the introduction and, perpe: tuation upon the stage of the factitious taste of Dryden and his followers.
And thus an addi-,
extravagance of plot are the distinctive characteristics of his two comedies, one of which, though by no means among the most excellent productions of his pen, has kept an honourable place in the public favour. Of the elder Colman's pieces, two, “The Jealous Wife' and “The Clandestine Marriage,’ are still deservedly esteemed; and the latter in particular is frequently acted: they combine much elegance of composition with considerable comic power. Nor among the comic dramatists of the latter half of the last century must we forget to mention the once celebrated Samuel Foote, who has been more commonly than appropriately called the English Aristophanes, seeing that such a designation conveys much too high a compliment to Foote, and a very indifferent one to the great master of the elder Grecian comedy. So little had Foote's pieces of that burlesque ideality which constituted the essential character of the latter, that his exercise of the vis comica reduced itself almost exclusively to a contemporary personal satire.
It was left for one qualified to be the great actor of amounting to little more than a refined species of mimicry, nature to lead forth the sublime poet of nature from his which, from the merest mercenary motives, he directed quite
long theatrical obscurity.
The clear, deep, quick, and as readily against the most innocent peculiariues of \sing
varied truth which appeared in Garrick's interpretation of individuals as against the most injurious vices or follies. Shakspeare's leading characters, after all the cold, leaden, Hence it is, that of the many farces which he wrote,
formal declamation under which even the best-esteemed performers had so long been accustomed to smother their spirit, was nothing less than a revelation to the play-going public of that day. The effect was electrical. Not only the leading dramatic taste, but the highest standard of acting, was raised at once to its antient elevation; nor has either of them, amidst all the minor vicissitudes of our theatrical history, ever since descended below it. Of the genius and efforts of our dramatic writers during this latter aera it is not possible to speak so highly. It is perhaps too much to look once in a century, or even in several centuries, for a writer like Shakspeare, possessing such universal mastery over all human emotions as to be able to blend them in such endless variety as to move at will, in whatever order, in whatever alternation or juxtaposition that he pleases, our laughter and our tears. . We know that there are myriads who can enjoy the tragic or the comie, more especially the latter, for one who can thoroughly relish both; and that yet smaller is the proportion among those who can relish both, of those who can excel in producing both. Yet it might not have been unreasonable to have expected among our later dramatic productions a greater number approaching the perfection of those models which other countries have produced within those narrower limits of tragedy and comedy which, as we have seen, were established as part of their dramatic system. Garrick himself, having made no great attempt in dramatic composition, exposed himself to no considerable failure: one or two of his small afterpieces have kept possession of the stage; but his labour of this kind most worthy of mention is probably the share which he took in the comosition of one of Colman's best comedies, ‘The Clandestine W. Cumberland's comic powers were respectable; but in his most successful pieces, ‘The West Indian, brought out by Garrick in 1771, and “The Wheel of Fortune,’ to which John Kemble's masterly personation of the principal character gave so decided a popularity, he scarcely rises above mediocrity. Horace Walpole's tragedy, “The Mysterious Mother,’ though its subject necessarily excluded it from representation, set the first example of a vigorous attempt to return to a natural and healthy tragic tone and style. As for the ‘Douglas' of Home, it has no such qualities to recommend it, but acquired and has retained the public favour chiefly by dint of one truly and deeply pathetic situation wherein the strongest domestic affections are profoundly and permanently interested. Sheridan gave new life and spirit to “genteel comedy,’ in which department he remains at the head of the writers of the present aera. Though perhaps his pieces are less perfectly finished than those of Congreve, already characterized as the chief of this class of dramatists in the preceding period, and although, especially in ‘The School for Scandal, he is subject to the same imputation as his predecessor, of being too indiscriminately lavish of epigrammatic wit, yet he has more truly comic wit, more force of genuine humour, than Congreve, as is more particularly felt in his play of “The Rivals,' and should therefore, we conceive, be ranked above him as regards the more essential qualities of comedy. The dramatic merits of Goldsmith were of a totally different
chiefly to exhibit in them his own powers of satirical mimicry as an actor, not more than one survives upon the
# was towards the close of the century that the sentimental comedy of the German school of Kotzebue, with little but its novelty to recommend it, acquired a footing in England. In this kind, among the direct adaptations from the German, “The Stranger' has had the most general success, and is the most perfect representative of the species. Among the native efforts in the same line, Holcroft's ‘Road to Ruin,’ still popular, is one of the most meritorious. The same wilter has the credit, also of having first introduced on the English stage the melo-drama, which has since filled so large a place upon it... Mrs. Inchbald, among many pleasing original pieces in the lighter comedy, has likewise given us an adaptation from Kotzebue. M. G. Lewis, in his tragedies, as in his romances, drew from a very different German source, in his taste, we might almost say his rage, for the marvellous and the terrific. A kindred spirit is displayed in the late Charles Maturin's tragedy of “Bertram,' to which Kean's acting gave high success. As regards Lord Byron's tragedies, we have only to remind the reader that as their author never designed them for representation, he is by no means chargeable with their dramatic failure.
We abstain from individual criticism of living English contemporaries. As regards modern efforts in the Shakspearian drama, the flight in this case is so \ofty and so bold, that even to attempt it may be said to require alumost as vigorous and as rare a genius as to succeed. But on the ground next in elevation, that of tragedy in the mere limited sense, aspirants, if not very numerous, are yet, frvin time to time, presenting themselves: however, we have not yet anything that approaches in natural vigour or in Yue's richness, either to the masterpieces of Schiller, or even to the most successful efforts of the new romantic school of France. In the higher comedy the experiments are yet more rare. Decency has long been thoroughly established in this department; but since Sheridan's time, we look in vain either for the raciness of humour, the brilliancy of wit, or the happiness of invention which seasoned the licentiousness of our earlier comic writers. Of the occasional pieces written to show off the talent of particular actors, the numerous adaptations of French farces and vaudevilles, and the many trilles that are continually coming forth into an ephemeral popularity in the form of comic opera or burletta, we shall merely remark that, with much that is lively and amusing, they have little that indicates either vigour or originality of dramatic talent.
he late and continued decline of dramatic art in Eng
land, which it is common to speak of as if it were tending to the utter abasement of that art, if not to its total extinction, seems to demand that we should point out dis’ tinctly the leading considerations relative to this subject It is true that since the age of Elizabeth, for instance, the spread of printing and of reading, and above all, the rise and progress of novel and romance writing since the middle of the last century, have reduced the theatre to the occupation of a much smaller relative space among the sources