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mon parlance, because our poverty of language has no exacter word for it: it is a high and beautiful product of human intelligence, but it is not true, pure comedy.
If, on the other hand, the image cast upon the stage be wholly distorted and falsified, and the action and personages of the drama be made laughter-provoking by exaggeration or caricature, the result is no longer comedy but Farce, whether it be the farce of Aristophanes, of Foote, or of Labiche. Again, if the mockery be ungenial, the laughter savage, or mainly cynical and contemptuous, no dramatic quality it may possess will fit it for stage purposes-will humanize it, as it were; it is neither Comedy nor Farce, but Satire, and the work may please a reader, but will not satisfy an audience.
It is well thus to make a somewhat dogmatic definition of Comedy, that the critical reader may know what he is to expect in the following selections from our English Comic Dramatists. He will see at once how far afield his selector has been able to go, and where he has had to draw the line. Having regard only to the providing of good and interesting reading, he might have quoted largely from our Romantic Drama, in which our literature is exceptionally rich, or from our
Farce Drama, to which we have something of an Italian leaning, but to do this would have required folios, not a single small volume.
There is one condition precedent of good comedy the necessity of which cannot be made too clear: it is the pre-existence of a good and a receptive audience. An audience of quick perceptions, among whom a certain education of manners prevails,-an audience ready in the give and take of free social life,-one where women hold a high standing,-an audience critical yet laughter-loving and tolerant,-is the only ground on which the seed of good comedy can germinate and thrive. Such were the audiences that listened to the humours of Ben Jonson and the more natural comedy of Shakspere; such was the circle, coarse and gross in some respects to our modern apprehension, but wellbred and highly exercised in social converse, which favoured the growth of that 'Restoration Comedy' which for mere wit and brilliancy is the triumph of our Comic Drama.
After that our star of Comedy was not again in the ascendant till Sheridan's and Goldsmith's time. This later period, too, coincided with a revival of social as well as literary activity, and the fine gentleman manner personified in Lord Chesterfield was still the
manner followed by the people who filled the playhouses.
These then are our good comedy periods: Shakspere's period first, then Congreve's, at the head of the Restoration Dramatists, then Sheridan's; after him chaos and anarchy again prevailed in the domain of the Comic Drama.
If we look to the causes of the melancholy interregna between these flourishing periods, it will be found to be as often or oftener traceable to the absence of the right conditions afore-mentioned as to the blighting effect of religious bigotry. Twice over, indeed, in our history, as all students of it know, it was this and nothing else which was the cause of deterioration or non-production, for the Puritans actually closed the playhouses in Cromwell's time, and fifty years later the voice of the nonjuring divine, Jeremy Collier, raised in eloquent and not unrighteous protest against the license of the playwrights of the day, went some way to expel wit from the English stage for more than half a century.
Nevertheless, I hold other causes to be even more blighting to comedy than intolerance, and it is a sad admission for Liberals to have to make that mere social liberty is not a thing altogether favourable to
good comedy-writing. Unfortunately, the vox populi is not the supreme voice in matters dramatical, and it has been but too often raised both to damn a good play (with faint praise or otherwise) and to praise a bad one. This way of accounting for much work that is second-rate in our national comedy will, I think, be seen to hold good if we glance in the most cursory manner at our comedy literature from Shakspere's time.
That austere, passionate, and ardent spirit which made the Elizabethan drama great did not last far into James's or Charles's reigns. It presently died away, and a social relaxation took place, politically desirable, no doubt, for it helped to lead to a more popular civil polity, but for literature unfortunate. Audiences got very easy so long as stage effect and situation were attended to. They grew careless of the rest. Beaumont and Fletcher took the place of Shakspere in public estimation, and such clever stage plays as the 'Scornful Lady' and the 'Little French Lawyer,' poor as they are in literature, kept the stage against the greatest of all masters of the drama.
Not till the popular party was in abeyance, and court influence strong again under Charles II., did the Comic Drama revive in new and vigorous form, and
Etheredge, Wycherley, Crowne, and their greater successors, write and flourish. Then came the reaction and Jeremy Collier's wrath, and players and authors alike were shamed or terrified into silence or decorous mediocrity. Not even the wit, learning, and good manners of Queen Anne's reign could avail, and though the Comic Muse ventured to show her face again, it was now much too demure and prudish a face, as a generation before it had been far too brazen a one. It was a modest and moral muse enough that now spoke, but the true mocking spirit of comedy was wanting, the old brilliancy was gone. The best wits of the time could make little of comedy. Steele's and Addison's attempts in that line were not very successful. The moralizing and didactic spirit of the 'Spectator' and the 'Tatler,' with all its neatness, its playfulness, and its delicacy, is not the true comic strain. Addison was once called " a parson in a tie-wig,' and the sermonizing tendency which the phrase implies is fatal to comedy. His solitary performance in this province, The Drummer,' is not a strong performance, while his friend and colleague Steele's earliest and truest comedy, the 'Funeral,' contains little that is good beyond one admirable scene, often quoted, but too short for selection in this work. His most success