페이지 이미지
PDF
ePub

established itself on the stage for twenty years past, is Milman's Fazio; the incidents of which, in the original tale (the fifth novel of Grazzini), are homely enough, but wonderfully simple and true. The beautiful poetry in which the tragic author has enwrapped them, does not conceal one feature or outline, but rather serves to enhance the merit of what it covers, like the maiden's veil in Ariosto :

"Which all the beauties of her form discloses,

As the clear crystal doth the imprison'd roses."

And yet the success of this very play may in part be owing to the paucity of its dramatis persona, which brings it within the compass of the leading business of any theatre, having the least claims to respectability. Fazio and Bianca, cleverly played, will carry it off pretty well; although we have heard, from a very distinguished person, whose representation of the latter character was certainly a most exquisite and touching specimen of art, guided by genius, that the "Lady Aldobella" would in competent hands be the triumph of the piece. This, however, we always, with deference to the authority, deemed a paradox; though the opinion naturally enough arose from the consciousness of power to give that character a force and consequence, of which the inefficient persons to whom it is commonly committed have no conception.

Knowles has furnished two plays for the stage which, with all their faults, indicate considerable dramatic power and some command of resources. Master Walter, in the Hunchback, is, we believe, an invention the more meritorious for offering something to the spectator on which the imagination can fix without too strong an effort. There is something material and tangible in him, in which particular Mr. Knowles has much more successfully copied the old dramatists than in his quaint prithees and obsolete inversions. The hood does not make the monk, nor will adverbs and prepositions, however skilfully arranged, bring back the days of Queen Bess. But Mr. Knowles has another merit, and that is, judgment in the selection of situation. His characters occasionally bear admirably upon each other. In former days men were lavish of these points, but now one or two make the fortune of a play, and justly so when a few chilling verses and a violent catastrophe are held sufficient stock for a writer to come before the public with. We consider St. Pierre, in "The Wife," as a very successful effort of art on the part of the same author; and the last interview of that character with his employer, in which he extorts the confession, as very cleverly conceived. Not that it is not liable to remark on the score of probability-the thing never could have happened-but that is a minor objection, which a caviller might

make to a thousand of the most effective scenes in the language. Hamlet and Laertes never could have throttled each other in a young lady's grave before a whole court, the ministers of religion and the attendant guards, in any country sufficiently civilized to bestow the rites of sepulture at all,-and so of the rest. On this score we are much of the opinion of Voltaire, who told a débutante receiving instructions from him in relation to a character in one of his tragedies, and who objected that if she played it according to his wishes the audience would say that she had the devil in her. "That is precisely what I want, madam,” replied the author, "an actress ought to have the devil in her." We entertain the same views in relation to writers for the stage. It will not do for them to weigh every minute circumstance of objection before they commit a scene to the prompter's hands. The whole thing is an illusion, and so intended to be. The shadows on the canvass must be larger than life, or the distance to which they are thrown will make them seem smaller. Spectators do not analyse if they can be brought to admire, and the time is past when the critics could outvote the galleries.

But we have been led a little aside from our position relative to the effect of the degeneracy of the stage, upon dramatic authorship and the tendency of dramatic talent to such a new form of address to the imagination. A remarkable instance of this is the very recent one of Mr. Taylor in his “Philip van Artevelde." That performance, if we are not mistaken, partakes more largely of the spirit of epic than of dramatic poetry, and the shape into which it is thrown by the author indicates that he was sensible not only that the age of the epopee is gone, but also that the reign of the drama in its older forms is passing away. Such a subject in the days of Elizabeth would have been compressed into a play, if it came at all under the notice of a man of genius. At an earlier, and perhaps at a later period, it would have been expanded into a heroic poem. In 1835 its author could meet the exigencies of literature no better than by making it a dramatic poem instead of a drama. There is excellent poetry, there are fine situations, and excellent scenes in it; yet the writer has not been induced by all the attractions that a stage-triumph was once thought to carry with it, to risk his venture in the hands of a theatrical company, or to leave it in a shape that by possibility might tempt a manager to try conclusions with it. An author who, in the last century, had evinced capacity for dealing with the difficulties and appropriating the advantages of dramatic situation to an equal extent with Mr. Taylor, and had neglected to carry them to Drury Lane or Covent Garden, would have passed for a prodigy. Such a poet as he, could not have kept away from the boards.

To get his play acted and to put it in a form to be acted would have been his instinctive impulse. Instead of quietly completing and perfecting his piece in the intervals of official duty, and at length casting it forth unheralded upon the reading world, the St. James's Chronicle and the Public Ledger (if they then existed) would have trumpeted the forthcoming play, while intrigues with managers and actors, forestalling the favour of wits and a deal of green-room diplomacy, would have occupied the interval. What a world of humiliation and chagrin poor Goldsmith went through before he could come at his theatrical triumph! His plays flew like a shuttlecock from Garrick to Colman and from Colman back to Garrick, while he, one of England's best, and almost one of her greatest geniuses, stood by to pick up the bird and respectfully tender it anew to the players. Then a handful of noisy apprentices, judiciously set on, might easily blast what laborious talent had been months, perhaps years, in building. We cannot but think that the dignity of authorship is gaining by this appeal from the theatre to the press, from managers to nations. The stage may lose, and the ignorance and narrowness which have too often presided over it, and the mediocrity which now sustain it deserve to lose, but the public and the author understand each other better in the absence of an officious interpreter. Men of genius, if they lose a speedy triumph, need not apprehend a hasty condemnation, for a reader judges in calmness where an auditor might be hurried into unconscious injustice.

We are far from believing, however, that the form of literary production adopted by Mr. Taylor, and of which there are various examples, is to have a very long abiding place in English literature. We view it but as the intermezzo-the step of transition-between the old forms of the serious drama and a new form of poetic creations. Between this theory and an absolute surrender of the higher poetry we see no alternative. Cut off from the epic, or the history of an action, by the nature of our faith and our advanced social position, and from the dramatic, or the representation of an action by conventional rules and the progress of science, the direct effect of which has been to deaden the general mind to impressions received through the imagination, poets must make mind itself their theme, and, yielding the material, (save so far as the mere description of natural forms is concerned,) take refuge deep within the moral.

We consider the Paradise Lost wholly sui generis. Milton is sublime from the awful and unapproachable nature of his subject, as Homer is in a less degree from the distance of his era. Milton's heroes are supernatural: Homer's are seen through a medium which vastly augments their proportions.

Voltaire somewhere says, "Otez aux Arabes, aux Persans, aux Juifs, le soleil et la lune, les montagnes et les vallées, les dragons et les basilics, il ne leur reste plus de poesie." From this first elemental condition the advance of the art has been more and more incorporated with the intellectual and moral attributes of our nature, and as science has penetrated in its progress the dim and distant realms of ether, so has poetry, aided by philosophy, begun to fathom the recesses of the human microcosm. While the natural elements of society fermented as in a vast caldron, from the revival of learning down to the middle or even to the close of the seventeenth century, the poetry of all nations was but a reflection of the images of actual life. From Dante to Dryden we may trace the hideous turmoil and jarring sound of men in fierce opposition or treacherous alliance. Every thing then was dramatic, for the passions took shape and form; human propensities came out in strong and bold relief; men acted out their griefs and hatred; their vengeance found a stage to play its part on; and Europe was full of various intrigues, deadly feuds, the baseness of pretended friendship, and the cruelty of real animosity; while the political wars of Italy, the religious wars of Germany, the court wars of France, and the civil wars of England, came in succession to exhibit human actors under various and singular impulses. What wonder that the stage found materials for the mimic drama, when each successive day brought a new scene to the complicated drama of life.

It would not be true were we to say that England has not produced a good tragedy since the accession of the house of Hanover, but we may safely assert that the tragic faculty went out soon after the Prince of Orange came in. The period which succeeded the act of settlement, when society became organized, was highly favourable to the growth of the comedy of manners -it was the age of philosophy, of diplomacy, of modes, of reviving arts, of polite studies. The world still retained the strong impress of the past-the drops of the bygone storm were not yet evaporated, but passion had passed over into feeling, and the bloom and the odour began to arise in the track of the tempest. Marlborough's wars themselves always appeared to us more like a game of chess than a bloody struggle between opposing nations-they sat down so gingerly by turns before Dendermond or Liege. The wits of Queen Anne's time, the Bolingbrokes, the Swifts, Pope, Addison, and Sir Richard, ("God 'a mercy, fellow,") were any thing but the successors of Sophocles. True, a sense of duty drives us all at least once over "Cato," (we have read it ourselves for a similar reason since we began this paper), but what a cold and inflated cabinet tragedy it is, when placed in comparison with a hundred of

[blocks in formation]

those effusions which a century earlier were thrown so prodigally before the groundlings of the London theatres! Who but Voltaire ever called "Cato" a work of genius, with its pedantic, measured mannerisms, and Betterton's "wig, flowered gown, and lacquered chair" in every line of it? Even the tragedies of Otway and Rowe, belonging as they do to an anterior period, we profess not to be able to appreciate very highly. There is no play more frequently performed than "Venice Preserved," nor shall we venture wholly to impugn the taste of large communities whose sympathy with Belvidera's white pocket handkerchief softens them to tears every time it is represented. Still we think that "Venice Preserved" ought to be ranked in the class of the tragedie bourgeoise. The inventory of Jaffier's furniture, (who, by the way, is a mean-spirited sneaking villain, and a double traitor), is alone sufficient to degrade it from the heroic list. It is an exceedingly popular play with housemaids, and deservedly so. Pierre's gang of broken-down bully conspirators, the gross attempt of Renard so lusciously described, the frivolous insipid character of Jaffier, and, as we said before, the white handkerchief, are perfectly within their comprehension. Then there is a singsong lullaby burden in the versification which tickles the uneducated ear mightily. But this one thing is certain, that he who seeks a model in Otway will never gain the applause of the judicious. He, poor wretch, had no time to select models. Priuli's curse was almost, in terms, prophetic. He hatched plays "and starved."

As to Rowe it is needless to say much. His fame rests principally upon "The Fair Penitent," a play which is but a rifacimento of "The Fatal Dowry" of Philip Massinger, appropriated without a syllable of acknowledgment. It is difficult, at this time, to conceive that a plagiarism so impudent could escape instant exposure, and that it should be left to a recent enquirer to detect it. But it should be remembered that the study of the old dramatists (with the exception of Shakspeare, and such of his predecessors as could elucidate him,) has only revived under Gifford's intelligent and interesting criticism. The fact of the theft is so far important, that it enforces our position that even in the last century the spirit of tragedy must have been greatly degenerate, when the chef-d'œuvre of its day was the ghost of the forgotten and neglected effort of an author by no means the most celebrated of his time.

The king's breakfast was the era of Sir Walter Scott's old lady of Tillietudlem, the French revolution is the epoch from which a change in all modern European affairs finds a cause and a date. In the wars consequent upon that bloody business, the nations were subject to two intense influences,-the moral

« 이전계속 »