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through an enchanted wood, where Comus holds his revels: and the result is a merely mechanical mixture of the actual and the impossible, without chemical affinity and producing no new substance. It is a great poem, though marred by the necessity of complimenting the Egerton family, but it lacks the quality of quickening dramatic power. And that quality “The Faithful Shepherdess " has.
In choosing a typical play of the class that deals mainly with manners one would naturally turn to the dramatists of the Restoration; and “The Double Dealer,” by Congreve, “ The Plain Dealer," by Wycherley, or “The Beaux' Stratagem,” by Farquhar, might serve as a brilliant example of an enduring school. There is in each rare literary skill; there is art in construction; there is the imagination that breathes reality into every character; and in all there is the immoral suggestion of a licentious age. “The Double Dealer” and “The Plain Dealer” have wit, but it is the wit of satire; “The Beaux' Stratagem" has wit, but it is the wit of gayety. Congreve's masterpiece leaves the impression of an art that makes villainy in man and woman so cunning and so strong as almost to command admiration as well as hate ; Wycherley's masterpiece is so coarse in fibre that it rouses disgust even in the manifestation of the most generous passion; Farquhar's masterpiece overflows with humour so easy and fantastic that even highway robbery seems a matter of fun, and burglary a sort of lover's opportunity. But those dramas are unfit for acting and not good for general reading; and so it is better to take, in illustration of the artificial comedy of the eighteenth century, Sheridan's “School for Scandal,” which still keeps the stage and will probably never lose its popularity.
Charles Lamb, in an essay on our artificial comedy, pleads against taking the work of the leading dramatists of the school too seriously and judging the creatures of their theatrical world by the laws of common morality. He argues that they break through no conscientious restraints, because they know of none. “They have," he
says, “got out of Christendom into the land — what shall I call it? — of cuckoldry, the Utopia of gallantry, where pleasure is duty, and the manners perfect freedom.” He praises Congreve for excluding from his scenes all pretensions to goodness or good feelings whatever ; and then adds :
“ Translated into real life, the characters of his, and his friend Wycherley's dramas are profligates and strumpets — the business of
their brief existence the undivided pursuit of lawless gallantry. No other spring of action or possible motive of conduct is recognized, principles which, if universally acted upon, must reduce the frame of things to chaos. But we do them wrong in so translating them. No such effects are produced in their world. When we are among them, we are among a chaotic people. We are not to judge of them by our usages. No reverend institutions are insulted by their proceedings, for they have none among them. No peace of families is violated, for no family ties exist among them. No purity of the marriage bed is stained, for none is supposed to have a being. No deep affections are disquieted, no holy wedlock bonds are snapped asunder, for affections depth and wedded faith are not of the growth of that soil. There is neither right nor wrong, gratitude or its opposite, claim or duty of paternity or sonship. Of what consequence is it to virtue, or how is she at all concerned about it, whether Sir Simon or Dapperwit steal away Miss Martha, or who is the father of Lord Froth's or Sir Paul Pliant's children?"
There is a touch of seeming reasonableness in this whimsical argument, for if a dramatist leads us into fairyland we do not expect to meet mere men and women, or to have Ariel, Puck, or Titania subject to the law of gravitation; but even if we are to stray out of Christendom, the poet ought not to lead us always into the Utopia of vice, or seek to disguise the fact that we have gone abroad. It is good to dream, but there be evil dreams; it is good to wander with ideals, but not low ideals; it is good to create an imaginary world, but not to people it with men and women whose characters are bad, whose actions are shameful, and whose conversation is vile. That is from the purpose of playing as the greatest of dramatists defined it.
Lamb, in speaking of “The School for Scandal,” describes it admirably as somewhat akin to the plays of Congreve and Wycherley. He held also that it should be played, like other comedies of the kind, with an air of unreality, that it was so played in the beginning, and that it was only a new generation that took it in earnest.
It is one of our best acting plays, for Sheridan was a manager, and understood the art of constructing a play for effect; an orator, and knew the secret of touching at once the understanding and the sympathy of an audience; a wit, keenly satiric and gayly humourous; a man of the world, versed in the life about him, master of its resources, and a partaker in its follies. If he had not proved his
genius in many other ways, one might say that he seemed born and trained for comedy. It may be said of “ The School for Scandal” that the sense of unreality in seeing it is almost a shield against criticism, but not quite; and, therefore, notwithstanding its many striking qualities, we can not refrain from finding fault with it, because not one of its characters challenges full sympathy. The scandalous college of which Lady Sneerwell is president, and Lady Teazle a licentiate, is too fantastic to provoke any feeling save amusement. But Sir Peter and Lady Teazle have elements of genuine humanity in them as well as elements of theatrical value ; and their story appeals to the heart and the judgment. There is enough of manhood about Charles Surface to make us wish to sympathize with him as a hero; but his hardness even more than his profligacy grates on the sensibilities, and he is dismissed to love and happiness without a single quality that deserves either. In the screen scene, in the face of the only pathetic situation in the drama, he behaves meanly and maliciously, without a touch of good feeling or gentlemanly spirit. Charles Lamb made a special plea against taking Joseph Surface seriously; and no doubt many persons smile at his villainy rather than hate it; yet his fine sentiments and his smooth hypocrisy are the commonest devices of the prosperous scoundrel in actual life. Every one who has reached middle age is familiar with instances in which noble phrases and false pretences, without the aid of a single great quality or strong achievement, have carried vice and incapacity on to fortune. The people love a sentimental liar everywhere but on the stage, for there only are they apt to discern the falsehood.
Many modern English poets have been tempted into the use of dramatic form, but none of them has succeeded in writing a great and successful acting play. They make good literature ; but they are apt to forget that the essential thing in a drama is not fine poetry, or the telling of a story, or subtle study of character, but action. They fail commonly because they lack constructive power, in which many of the plays that keep the stage may be said to be weak; but they fail also because they forget that every situation in a play must appeal directly to an audience and be understood at once. For the spectator each character must wear his heart upon his sleeve, and there must be no doubt about effects. They should be simple as the elements, and if need be glow like fire or rage like the storm.
Herein lies the peculiar charm of the drama. The people on the stage may move in ignorance; the hero may be maligned and suspected; the villain may pose as a just and loyal gentleman ; the flimsiest devices may set wise men astray; but he that looks on must know the soul of each character that he watches and the aim of every stratagem. It is this superior knowledge that ennobles his interest, giving him the sense of a divine insight into the little world before him. For two or three hours he sits like a deity of old and looks down on the struggles of men. When in the “ Electra” of Sophocles the companion of Orestes tells Clytemnestra the false story of his death in a chariot race, in words as resplendent as the hero and as resonant as the hoof-beats of the steeds, the wicked mother is deceived, but not the spectator; and when Orestes gives to his sister Electra the urn supposed to contain his own ashes, her grief is real enough to move our sympathy, though we know that solace is at hand. On any other scheme, witnessing a drama would be like watching a game of chess for one who knows neither the powers of the pieces nor the strategy of the players.
It is not necessary here to make a study of Robert Browning as a poet; but there can be no doubt that he had unusual dramatic insight and dramatic power. He wrote eight dramas; and many of his most striking poems are dramatic monologues ; so that it may be said that none of our poets ever felt a stronger impulse to enter into the nature of another, to realize his environment and to disentangle the various influences moulding his character. He found it difficult to get away from the dramatic method; and to the end, even in the discussion of the problem of immortality, or in the relation of a tragic story, he was wont to give to everything the colour and effect that come from sifting through a peculiar intellect. Yet he was not a dramatist in the ordinary sense of the term. A close analysis of his genius written at the time of his death suggests the reason: “He chose to be a student of the strange and grotesque in character and conduct, to trace the intricate windings of purpose and go deeper into the moving forces of a man's strange acts than the man's own consciousness could carry himself. He likes the inconsistent, to exhibit the triumph of the notions, the impressions, the small vanities, the obliquities of moral sense, over the plain, straightforward, common-sensible forces of right and custom and interest. He takes us often to the point of view of the squinting
vision and shows us how the squint modifies the view." The critic adds: “He seemed to grow impatient of the work of the dramatist so far as it consists in evolving character by various situations and the influence of minor actors. He preferred to take some one man in some moment when the forces that have been gathering strength in the unnoticed workings of the thoughts and passions, suddenly break out in the stress of some crisis and assert their irresistible power; and so the dramatic monologue became more and more his favourite form, because here he needed to concern himself only with the intricacies of the thought, the methods of the spirit dealing with itself.” His great theme as he declared it over and over again was the unfolding of the human soul under the manifold influences of life; and the representation of this spiritual development is hardly within the sphere of dramatic art. In watching the delicate processes the spectator grows confused and uncertain, loses his position of superior knowledge, and finds metaphysical study taking the place of dramatic interest. In most of Browning's dramas, even a reader is perplexed as to the meaning of the situations and the characters; and subtle and curious motives interfere with the play of primitive passions.
To “A Blot in the 'Scutcheon " alone among the dramas this criticism does not apply. The story is simple, the action is direct, the passions roused in the play are overmastering; and the characters are all noble though not faultless. It is a drama without a villain and without a conspiracy. It opens in holiday sunshine and darkens rapidly into disaster. Almost from the beginning you feel that the tragic elements are gathering irresistibly, and you listen for the step of doom. The peculiarity of the play is that it is not evil that works ruin so much as excess of goodness, a sort of bigotry of virtue. There is sin in it, of course, involving lack of trust and even duplicity, but it is sin that becomes deadly because it has entered into the Paradise of honour, purity and truth. A boy and a girl, in their excess of love and innocence, have given way to passion; and on the eve of a happy marriage their sin becomes known to the girl's brother, a man of a “chastity of honour which felt a stain like a wound.” To a critic who never has seen the play acted, there seem to be two slight faults in its construction. We are not told at the beginning, or near enough to the beginning, that Mertoun and Mildred are lovers. The poet, no doubt, intended to convey a hint