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ever attained so perfectly the true end of comedy. His Tartuffe and Avare are his two capital productions.
FROM the English theatre is naturally expected a great variety of original characters in comedy, and bolder strokes of wit and humour than from any other modern stage. Humour is in some degree peculiar to England. The freedom of the government, and the unrestrained liberty of English manners, are favourable to humour and singularity of character. In France the influence of a despotic court spreads uniformity over the nation. Hence comedy has a more amplified and a freer vein in Britain than in France. But it is to be regretted, that the comic spirit of Britain. is often disgraced by indecency and licentiousness.
The first age, however, of English comedy was not infected by this spirit. The plays of Shakespeare and Ben Johnson have no immoral tendency. The com edies of the former display a strong, creative genius; but are irregular in conduct. They are singularly rich in characters and manners; but often descend to please the mob. Johnson is more regular, but stiff and pe$ dantic; though not void. of dramatic genius. Much fancy and invention, and many fine passages, are found in the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. But in general they abound in romantic incidents, unnatural cha racters, and coarse allusions.
Change of manners has rendered the comedies of the last age obsolete. For it is the exhibition of prevailing modes and characters, that gives a charm to comedy. Thus Plautus was antiquated to the Ro mans in the days of Augustus. But to the honour of Shakespeare his Falstaff is still admired, and his Merry Wives of Windsor read with pleasure.
After the restoration of Charles II. the licentiousness, which poluted the court and nation, seized upon comedy. The rake became the predominant character. Ridicule was thrown upon chastity and sobriety. At the end of the play indeed the rake becomes a sober man; but through the performance he is a fine gentleman, and exhibits a picture of the pleasurable joyments of life. This spirit of comedy had the worst effect on youth of both sexes, and continued to the days of George II.
In the comedies of Dryden there are many strokes of genius; but he is hasty and careless. As his object was to please, he followed the current of the times, and gave way to indelicacy and licentiousness. His indecency was at times so gross, as to occasion a prohibition of his plays on the stage.
After Dryden flourished Cibber, Vanburgh, Farquhar, and Congreve. Cibber has sprightliness and a pert vivacity; but his incidents are so forced and un. natural, that his performances have all sunk into ob scurity, excepting the Careless Husband and The Pro
Of these the first is remarkable for
the easy politeness of the dialogue; and it is tolerably moral in its conduct. The latter, in which Cibber was assisted by Vanburgh, is perhaps the best comedy in the English language; and even to this it may be objected, that it has a double plot. Its characters however are natural, and it abounds with fine painting and happy strokes of humour.
Wit, spirit, and ease, characterize Sir John Vanburgh; but he is the most indelicate and immoral of all our comedians. Congreve undoubtedly possessed genius. He is witty and sparkling, and full of cha racter and action. Indeed he overflows with wit; for it is often introduced unseasonably; and in general there is too much of it for well-bred conversation. Farquhar is a light and gay writer; less correct and less brilliant than Congreve; but he has more ease, and much of the vis comica, Like Congreve he is licentious; and modesty must turn from them both with abhorrence. The French boast with justice of the superior decency of their stage, and speak of the English theatre with astonishment. Their phi losophical writers ascribe the profligate manners of London to the indelicacy and corruption of English co. medy.
Of late years a sensible reformation has taken place in English comedy. Our writers of comedy now appear ashamed of the indecency of their predecessors.
They may be inferior to Farquhar and Congreve in spirit, ease and wit; but they have the merit of being far more innocent and moral.
To the French stage we are much indebted for this reformation. The introduction within a few years of a graver comedy in France, called the serious or tender comedy, has attracted the attention and approbation of our writers. Gaiety and ridicule are not excluded from this species of comedy; but it lays the chief stress on tender and interesting situations. It is sentimental, and touches the heart. It pleases not so much by the laughter it excites, as by the tears of affection and joy which it draws forth.
This form of comedy was opposed in France, as an unjustifiable innovation. It was objected by critics, that it was not founded on laughter and ridicule; but it is not necessary that all comedies be formed on one precise model. Some may be gay; some serious; and some may partake of both qualities. Serious and tender comedy has no right to exclude gaiety and ridicule from the stage. There are materials for both; and the stage is richer for the innovation. In general it may be considered as a mark of increasing politeness and refinement, when those theatrical exhibitions become fashionable, which are free from indelicate sentiment and an immoral tendency.