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enough attention to the individual nature of that great man, who from defect, not of complexional good-nature, but the imaginative faculty, may be called a Shakspeare without a heart). Perhaps hardly allowance enough is made in the passage we allude to, for the artificial nature of comedy itself, as a thing conversant with manners and superinduced qualities, rather than with passions and pure nature ; but it appears to us a just as well as eloquent exposure of the injury done to the animal spirits and delightfulness of the very best kind of comedy, by the cold and critical excess of the brilliant verbiage of these writers;—a wit, as the reviewer well observes, unnaturally lavished on all characters indiscriminately, and after all, no better than a hungry want of it, compared with the genial superabundance of such a pleasantry as Falstaff's.
“ No writers have injured the comedy of England (says the Reviewer) so deeply as Congreve and Sheridan. Both were men of wit and polished taste. Unhappily they made all their characters in their own likeness. Their works bear the same relation to the legitimate drama which a transparency bears to a painting : no delicate touches :-no hues imperceptibly fading into each other :-the whole is lighted up with an universal glare. Outlines and tints are forgotten in the blaze which illuminates all. The flowers and fruits of the intellect abound ; but it is the abundance of a jungle, not of a garden; -unwholesome, bewildering, unprofitable from its very plenty, rank from its very fragrance. Every fop, every boor, every valet, is a man of wit. The very buts and dupes, Tattle, Witwoud, Puff, Acres, outshine the whole Hôtel de Rambouillet. To prove the whole system of this school absurd, it is only necessary to apply the test which dissolves the enchanted Florimel—to place the true by the false Thalia, to contrast the most celebrated characters which have been drawn by the writers of whom we speak, with the Bastard in King John,' or the Nurse in • Romeo and Juliet.' It was not surely from want of wit that Beatrice threw Mirabel and Millamant into the shade. All the good sayings of the facetious hours of Absolute and Surface might have been clipped from the single character of Falstaff without being missed. It would have been easy for that fertile mind to have given Bardolph and Shallow as much wit as Prince Hal, and to have made Dogberry and Verges retort on each other in sparkling epigrams. But he knew, to use his own admirable language, that such indiscriminate prodigality was ‘from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was, and is, to hold, as it were, the mirror up to Nature.'”—Edinburgh Review, March 1827, p. 278.
This extract has rendered it additionally desirable that the author of the “ School for Scandal” and the “Rivals” should have the benefit of all which has been said of him by Mr. Hazlitt ; and with his highly favourable opinion we accordingly conclude, in order to leave as pleasant an impression as possible on the minds of those, who shall proceed from a perusal of this sketch to that of the plays before them.
“Mr. Sheridan has been justly called “ a dramatic star of the first magnitude :' and, indeed, among the comic writers of the last century, he shines like Hesperus among the lesser lights.' He has left four several dramas behind him, all different or of different kinds, and all excellent in their way ; 'The School for Scandal,' 'The Rivals,' • The Duenna,' and 'The Critic.' The attraction of this last piece is, however, less in the mock-tragedy rehearsed, than in the dialogue of the comic scenes, and in the character of Sir Fretful Plagiary, which is supposed to have been intended for Cumberland. If some of the characters in The School for Scandal' were contained in Murphy's comedy of Know your own Mind,' (and certainly some of Dashwood's detached speeches and satirical sketches are written with quite as firm and masterly a hand as any of those given to the members of the scandalous club, Mrs. Candour or Lady Sneerwell), yet they were buried in it for want of grouping and relief, like the colours of a well-drawn picture sunk in the canvas. Sheridan brought them out, and exhibited them in all their glory. If that gem, the character of Joseph Surface, was Murphy's, the splendid and more valuable setting was Sheridan's. He took Murphy's Malvil from his lurking-place in the closet, and
• dragged the struggling monster into day' upon the stage. That is, he gave interest, life, and action, or, in other words, its dramatic being, to the mere conception and written specimens of a character. This is the merit of Sheridan's comedies, that everything in them tells ; there is no labour in vain. His Comic Muse does not go about prying into obscure corners, or collecting idle curiosities, but shows her laughing face, and points to her rich treasure—the follies of mankind. She is garlanded and crowned with roses and vine-leaves. Her eyes sparkle with delight, and her heart runs over with goodnatured malice. Her step is firm and light, and her ornaments consummate ! "The School for Scandal' is, if not the most original, perhaps the most finished and faultless comedy which we have. When it is acted, you hear people all around you exclaiming, 'Surely it is impossible for anything to be cleverer.' The scene in which Charles sells all the old family pictures but his uncle's, who is the purchaser in disguise, and that of the discovery of Lady Teaxle when the screen falls, are among the happiest and most highly-wrought that comedy, in its wide and brilliant range, can boast. Besides the wit and ingenuity of this play, there is a genial spirit of frankness and generosity about it, that relieves the heart as well as clears the lungs. It professes a faith in the natural goodness, as well as habitual depravity of human nature. While it strips off the mask of hypocrisy, it inspires a confidence between man and man. As often as it is acted, it must serve to clear the air of that low, creeping, pestilent fog of cant and mysticism, which threatens to confound every native impulse, or honest conviction, in the nauseous belief of a perpetual lie, and the laudable profession of systematic hypocrisy. The character of Lady Teazle is not well made out by the author ; nor has it been well represented on the stage since the time of Miss Farren.—'The Rivals' is a play of even more action and incident, but of less wit and satire than • The School for Scandal.' It is as good as a novel in the reading, and has the broadest and most palpable effect on the stage. If Joseph Surface and Charles have a smack of Tom Jones and Blifil in their moral constitution, Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop remind us of honest Matthew Bramble and his sister Tabitha, in their tempers and dialect. Acres is a distant descendant of Sir Andrew Aguecheek. It must be confessed of this author, as Falstaff says of some one, 'that he had damnable iteration in him!' • The Duenna' is a perfect work of art. It has the utmost sweetness and point. The plot, the characters, the dialogue, are all complete in themselves, and they are all his own; and the songs are the best that ever were written, except those in the 'Beggars' Opera.' They have a joyous spirit of intoxication in them, and a strain of the most melting tenderness. Compare the softness of that beginning,
• Had I a heart for falsehood framed,' with the spirited defiance to Fortune in the lines,
• Half thy malice youth could bear,
And the rest a bumper drown.' "It would have been too much for the author of these elegant and classic productions not to have had some drawbacks on his felicity and fame. But even the applause of nations and the favour of princes cannot always be enjoyed with impunity.-Sheridan was not only an excellent dramatic writer, but a first-rate parliamentary speaker. His characteristics as an orator were manly, unperverted good sense, and keen irony. Wit, which has been thought a two-edged weapon, was by him always employed on the same side of the question - I think, on the right one. His set and more laboured speeches, as that on the Begum's affairs, were proportionably abortive and unimpressive: but no one was equal to him in replying, on the spur of the moment, to pompous absurdity, and unravelling the web of flimsy sophistry. He was the last accomplished debater of the House of Commons.”—Lectures on the Comic Writers, p. 334.
A PREFACE to a play seems generally to be considered as a kind of closet-prologue, in which-if his piece has been successful—the author solicits that indulgence from the reader which he had before experienced from the audience : but as the scope and immediate object of a play is to please a mixed assembly in representation (whose judgment in the theatre at least is decisive), its degree of reputation is usually as determined as public, before it can be prepared for the cooler tribunal of the study. Thus any farther solicitude on the part of the writer becomes unnecessary at least, if not an intrusion: and if the piece has been condemned in the performance, I fear an address to the closet, like an appeal to posterity, is constantly regarded as the procrastination of a suit, from a consciousness of the weakness of the cause. From these considerations, the following comedy would certainly have been submitted to the reader, without any farther introduction than what it had in the representation, but that its success has probably been founded on a circumstance which the author is informed has not before attended a theatrical trial, and which consequently ought not to pass unnoticed.
I need scarcely add, that the circumstance alluded to was the withdrawing of the piece, to remove those imperfections in the first representation which were too obvious to escape reprehension, and too numerous to admit of a hasty correction. There are few writers, I believe, who, even in the fullest consciousness of error, do not wish to palliate the faults which they acknowledge; and, however trifling the performance, to second their confession of its deficiencies, by whatever plea seems least disgraceful to their ability. In the present instance, it cannot be said to amount either to candour or modesty in me, to acknowledge an extreme inexperience and want of judgment on matters, in which, without guidance from practice, or spur from success, a young man should scarcely boast of being an adept. If it be said, that under such disadvantages no one should attempt to write a play, I must beg leave to dissent from the position, while the first point of experience that I have gained on the subject is, a knowledge of the candour and judgment with which an impartial public distinguishes between the errors of inexperience and incapacity, and the indulgence which it shows even to a disposition to remedy the defects of either.
It were unnecessary to enter into any farther extenuation of what was thought exceptionable in this play, but that it has been said, that the managers should have prevented some of the defects before its appearance to the public-and in particular the uncommon length of the piece as represented the first night. It were an ill return for the most liberal and gentlemanly conduct on their side, to suffer any censure to rest where none was deserved. Hurry in writing has long been exploded as an excuse for an author ;-however, in the dramatic line, it may happen, that both an author and a manager may wish to fill a chasm in the entertainment of the public with a hastiness not altogether culpable. The season was advanced when I first put the play into Mr. Harris's hands :-it was at that time at least double the length of any acting comedy. I profited by his judgment and experience in the curtailing of it-till, I believe, his feeling for the vanity of a young author got the better of his desire for correctness, and he left many excrescences remaining, because he had assisted in pruning so many more. Hence, though I was not uninformed that the acts were still too long, I flattered myself that, after the first trial, I might with safer judgment proceed to remove what should appear to have been most dissatisfactory. Many other errors there were, which might in part have arisen from my being by no means conversant with plays in general, either in reading or at the theatre. Yet I own that, in one respect, I did not regret my ignorance : for as my first wish in attempting a play was to avoid every appearance of plagiary, I thought I should stand a better chance of effecting this from being in a walk which I had not frequented, and where, consequently, the progress of invention was less likely to be interrupted by starts of recollection : for on subjects on which the mind has been much informed, invention is slow of exerting itself. Faded ideas float in the fancy like half-forgotten dreams; and the imagination in its fullest enjoyments becomes suspicious of its offspring, and doubts whether it has created or adopted.
With regard to some particular passages which on the first night's representation seemed generally disliked, I confess, that if I felt any emotion of surprise at the disapprobation, it was not that they were disapproved of, but that I had not before perceived that they deserved it. As some part of the attack on the piece was begun too early to pass for the sentence of judgment, which is ever tardy in condemning, it has been suggested to me, that much of the disapprobation must have arisen from virulence of malice, rather than severity of criticism: but as I was more apprehensive of there being just grounds to excite the latter than conscious of having deserved the former, I continue not to believe that probable, which I am sure must have been unprovoked. However, if it was so, and I could even mark the quarter from whence it came, it would be ungenerous to retort ; for no passion suffers more than malice from disappointment. For my own part, I see no reason why the author of a play should not regard a first night's audience as a candid and judicious friend attending, in behalf of the public, at his last rehearsal. If he can dispense with flattery, he is sure at least of sincerity, and even though the annotation be rude,
he may rely upon the justness of the comment. Considered in this light, that audience, whose fiat is essential to the poet's claim, whether his object be fame or profit, has surely a right to expect some deference to its opinion, from principles of politeness at least, if not from gratitude.
As for the little puny critics, who scatter their peevish strictures in private circles, and scribble at every author who has the eminence of being unconnected with them, as they are usually spleen-swoln from a vain idea of increasing their
consequence, there will always be found a petulance and illiberality in their remarks, which should place them as far beneath the notice of a gentleman, as their original dulness had sunk them from the level of the most unsuccessful author.
It is not without pleasure that I catch at an opportunity of justifying myself from the charge of intending any national reflection in the character of Sir Lucius O'Trigger. If any gentlemen opposed the piece from that idea, I thank them sincerely for their opposition ; and if the condemnation of this comedy (however misconceived the provocation) could have added one spark to the decaying flame of national attachment to the country supposed to be reflected on, I should have been happy in its fate; and might with truth have boasted, that it had done more real service in its failure, than, the successful morality of a thousand stage-novels will ever effect.
It is usual, I believe, to thank the performers in a new play, for the exertion of their several abilities. But where (as in this instance) their merit has been so striking and uncontroverted, as to call for the warmest and truest applause from a number of judicious audiences, the poet's after-praise comes like the feeble acclamation of a child to close the shouts of a multitude. The conduct, however, of the principals in a theatre cannot be so apparent to the public. I think it therefore but justice to declare, that from this theatre (the only one I can speak of from experience) those writers who wish to try the dramatic line will meet with that candour and liberal attention, which are generally allowed to be better calculated to lead genius into excellence, than either the precepts of judgment, or the guidance of experience.
Enter Serjeant-at-law, and Attorney following, and giving Att. Do you, then, sir, my client's place supply, a paper.
Profuse of robe, and prodigal of tieSerj. What's here !-a vile cramp hand! I Do you, with all those blushing powers of face, cannot see
And wonted bashful hesitating grace, Without my spectacles.
Rise in the court, and flourish on the case. [Exit. Att. He means his fee.
Serj. For practice then suppose--this brief will Nay, Mr. Serjeant, good sir, try again.
[Gives money. Me, serjeant Woodward,-counsel for the poet. Serj. The scrawl improves ! [more] O come, Used to the ground, I know 'tis hard to deal 'tis pretty plain.
With this dread court, from whence there's no Hey! how's this? Dibble !--sure it cannot be !
appeal ; A poet's brief ! a poet and a fee !
No tricking here, to blunt the edge of law, Att. Yes, sir ! though you without reward, I know, | Or, damn'd in equity, escape by flaw: Would gladly plead the Muse's cause.
But judgment given, your sentence must remain; Serj.
So !-so! No writ of error lies—to Drury-lane ! Att. And if the fee offends, your wrath should fall Yet when so kind you seem, 'tis past dispute
We gain some favour, if not costs of suit. Serj. Dear Dibble, no offence at all. No spleen is here! I see no hoarded fury ;Att. Some sons of Phoebus in the courts we I think I never faced a milder jury ! meet,
Sad else our plight! where frowns are transportation, Serj. And fifty sons of Phoebus in the Fleet! A hiss the gallows, and a groan damnation ! Att. Nor pleads he worse, who with a decent But such the public candour, without fear sprig
My client waives all right of challenge here. Of bays adorns his legal waste of wig.
No newsman from our session is dismiss'd, Serj. Full-bottom'd heroes thus, on signs, Nor wit nor critic we scratch off the list; unfurl
His faults can never hurt another's ease, A leaf of laurel in a grove of curl !
His crime, at worst, a bad attempt to please : Yet tell your client, that, in adverse days,
Thus, all respecting, he appeals to all, This wig is warmer than a bush of bays.
And by the general voice will stand or fall.