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way to the stage. You may easily imagine how much this circumstance interferes with the regularity of the representation, and with the convenience, of such at least of the female performers, as are not desirous of being well jostled, or of snatching a moment of gallant badinage. These poor creatures daubed as they are with coarse paint, and covered with tinsel, should, however, if they consulted their true interests, studiously keep the world, at a proper theatrical distance, on these occasions. The whole illusion of the stage, and of their charms, vanished for me, when I returned to the pit, after having contemplated them in the way I have mentioned. No optical deception can soon efface from the imagination, the idea of the disgusting reality.
A similar practice existed at the French opera, some time previous to the revolution. It was, however, at length proscribed, to the great satisfaction of the critics. One of them, in writing on the improvements of the French theatre, holds» language with respect to this point, which I think worth transcribing, and which the English public would do well to consider. "The most necessary," says he "and at the same time the most difficult improvement to be effected, was to clear the stage of that crowd of idle spectators, who inundated it, and who left scarcely any space whatever to the actors. It will hardly be imagined at the present day, that Merope, Iphigenia, and Semiramis, were played in the centre as it were, of a battalion of spectators standing, who blocked up the avenues to the stage, and through whom, the actors found it a laborious task to penetrate, in entering and retiring. Nothing could be more adverse to the pomp and illusion of the scene. The shade of Ninus, elbowing and making his way through a crowd of petits maitrcs, was at first an object of pleasantry, and the consequence was the fall of Semiramis, one of the most theatrical of our tragedies. But custom and the inclination of the performers maintained this barbarous abuse, which, perhaps, would still subsist, had it not been for the exertions of the Count de Lauragais." Every frequenter of " the king's theatre" in London, will, when he reads the above remarks, feci the force of the application.
I should, perhaps, dwell on the history of the London opera, which is curious,—in some respects as an illustration of the English character—were I not persuaded that you must be by this time, weary of the topic of this letter. I shall therefore, before I pass to something else, content myself with making only a short extract from a very amusing paper of the Spectator, on the subject, written by Addison, and which shows that this inimitable writer had as good food for ridicule at home, in the affairs of the stage, as he had found in the French metropolis. "Our authors," says the Spectator, "in translating the Italian operas, would often make words of their own, which were entirely foreign to the meaning of the passages they pretended to translate; their chief care being to make the numbers of the English verse answer to those of the Italian, that both of them might go to the same tune. Thus the famous song in Camilla:
Barbara, si Nintendo, tec.
"Barbarous woman, yes, I know your meaning,"—which expresses the resentment of an angry lover, was translated into that English lamentation:
Frail are a lover's hopes, &c.
And it was pleasant enough to see the most refined persons of the British nation, dying away, and languishing to notes that were full of rage and indignation."
"The next step to our refinement, was the introduction of Italian actors into our opera, who sung their parts in their own language, at the same time that our countrymen performed theirs in our native tongue. The king or hero of the play generally spoke in Italian, and his slaves answered him in English. The lover frequently made his court and gained the heart of his princess, in a language which she did not understand. One would have thought it very difficult to have carried on dialogues after this manner, without an interpreter between the persons who conversed together, but this was the state of the English stage for about three years."
Amokg the dramatic performances of the French metropolis, those of the " Theatre Francais" are highest in the esteem and favour of its inhabitants,—the wonders of the opera always excepted. Upon this theatre, which is exclusively reserved for tragedy, and genteel comedy, they plume themselves not a little, and, in my opinion, with great justice. No other of the kind wheresoever, is so well constituted:—none altogether capable of affording so rational, refined, and elegant an entertainment. Every stranger of good taste acquainted with the French language, and versed in the principles of sound criticism, must find in the " Theatre Francais," a source of exalted delight, and matter for warm and discriminating admiration. If any theatre whatever be a school of morals, it is this, while at the same time it is one of the true bon tan in manners and language;—a ton of which the real life of France presents at present but few examples. It surpasses all others of the world, in the delicacy, and general elevation of the dialogue; in the purity of the diction, and pronunciation, in the classical propriety of the dresses, and decorations. As the mind is oftener recreated with classical images, and carried back to antiquity in Paris, than in any other metropolis, with the exception of Rome, so is it likewise in the theatre of which I am speaking, more frequently, than in any similar establishment whatever.
You perceive that the commendation which I have here pronounced on the "theatre Francais," looks not merely to its mechanical details, and the capacity of the actors, but to the constitution of the French drama itself. I do not, however, mean to discuss the question of the comparative merits of this drama and that of England; a question upon which criticism may be said to have nearly exhausted all its resources, and which is nevertheless far from being settled to the conviction, either of the parties immediately concerned, or of the rest of the world. On this point I would refer you to Dryden's Essay on dramatic poetry, in whose opinions I partly concur; and to many very solid ideas to the same purport, scattered throughout the " Elements of Criticism" by lord Karnes. I shall merely indulge myself in making a few general incidental observations on the subject, and in stating the hv
fluence exerted over my own feelings by the drama of each nation, as it is acted in London and Paris.
During my residence in the latter city, the performances at the " Theatre Fran^ais," consisted generally, of the best tragedies and comedies, of the good school of the ancien rigime. Corneille, Racine, and Moliere had preserved their empire, amid the ruin of every other legitimate authority. Their chosen temple now and then presented a novelty, such for instance as the " Henri Quatre" of Ligouve, or the " Omasis" of Baour de Lormian, but the effect of the change was rather a fresh illustration of their merits by the force of contrast, and a consequent corroboration of their sway. In truth, the whole tribe of revolutionary and post-revolutionary dramatic writers, whether a Collin-d'Harleville, a Picard, a Francois de Neufchateau, a Ducis, a Chenier, a Legouve or a Lemercier, make but a sorry figure by the side of the Molieres, Pirons, Regnards, Destouches, Racines, Crebillons, Corneilles and Voltaires, their illustrious predecessors. The disparity in this case, is even greater than that which obtains, between our ..,^temporaries of the same profession in England, and those who flourished under the Tudors and Stuarts.
It would, indeed, be doing an injustice to such a maker of tragedies as " Monk Lewis," for instance, to say, that his "Castle Spectre," was as far removed from the " Hamlet" of Shakspeare, as the "Henri Quatre" of Legouve from the "Cid" of Corneille, or the " Macbeth" of Ducis from his English original. This last, together with the similar productions of the same author, which can neither be called metaphrase nor paraphrase, and which certainly were not intended as caricatures,—exhibits our old bard in a guise, under which, were he not previously announced in the gazettes, no one of his compatriot acquaintance would ever recognize him. Although he has been dealt with, as Corneille, and particularly Racine,have been accusedof treating the heroes of antiquity,— pared down to the French standard of humanity, the Parisians have not welcomed him with much cordiality,owing perhaps to the circumstance of his having fallen into very different hands from the poets just mentioned, and to his not being even as yet sufficiently cured of his fondness for slaughter, against which the French critics of every class, exclaim loudly, and with greater reason perhaps than we are willing to allow. Voltaire, in his imitations and plagiarisms, has introduced Shakspeare to his countrymen with better success, and more advantageously for the latter: And yet how great an inequality of general excellence,between " La Mort de Brutus" and "JuliusCarsar'"
Vol. III. 2 D
In frequenting the " Theatre Fran^ais," I adopted a practice, which I would recommend to every foreigner who resorts to it,—as every foreigner should do, with indefatigable assiduity. It was that of carrying with me in print, the piece to be performed, and reading it as the actor declaimed, losing at the same time as little of his gesticulation as possible. For an English foreigner, this is so much the more necessary, as, however well he may comprehend the language, when spoken in common life, he will find it almost impossible to understand the dramatic dialogue, until his ear is attuned to the peculiar cadence of the stage. Every expedient which serves to engage the attention of a stranger, the more entirely, in the performance, is rendered particularly useful by the circumstance, that the declamation of this theatre, is the traditional one of the best age of the French language, both as to tone and pronunciation; and the reading of the authors little less punctiliously correct in all respects, than when taught by themselves. Were an actor to commit even a small mistake in grammar or orthoepy, or deviate from the traditionary prelection and elocution, he would be immediately corrected aloud by some one of his auditors; and there are never wanting among them persons well qualified for the purpose. Youratet with men in the pit, who have been present, at every performance, which has taken place at this theatre, for twenty or thirty years past, without omitting a single night; who have by rote almost every line, and have conned almost every syllable, of its stock plays; who recollect distinctly how Le Kain, and Clairon, looked, gesticulated, and recited in each hemistich. This may appear extraordinary to you, but it is what has fallen under my own observation, and may be readily explained, by a reference to the passion, which the French cherish for theatrical amusements, the importance they attach to them, and the habit which they contract of relying upon them as apart of their diurnal enjoyment; topics on which I have already touched in the preceding letter.
With such censors, the performer is compelled to be scrupulously exact, and to make himself thoroughly master of the correct declamation of his part. He knows that nothing slovenly or illiterate will be endured. He has, besides, several peculiar incentives to exertion and accuracy. Among the number may be mentioned, the usage which prevails with the audience, to summon before them, at the termination of the play, the actor who has acquitted himself to their satisfaction, and to bestow upon him, as he approaches the edge of the stage, the tribute of their applause. Another and still stronger stimulus is the minute and unsparing criticism, to which his performance is, the next day.