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This apprehension, added to that greater which I have of my own weakness, may, I hope, incline the reader to believe me, when I assure him that these follies were made publick as much against my inclination as judgment: but being pursued with so many solicitations of Mr. Herringman's, and having received civilities from him, if it were possible, exceeding his importunities, I at last yielded to prefer that which he believed his interest, before that which I apprehend my own disadvantage: considering withal, that he might pretend it would be a real loss to him, and could be but an imaginary prejudice to me; since things of this nature, though never so excellent, or never so mean, have seldom proved the foundation of men's new-built fortunes, or the ruin of their old; it being the fate of poetry, though of no other good parts, to be wholly separated from interest; and there are few that know me but will easily believe I am not much concerned in an unprofitable reputation. This clear account I have given the reader of this seeming contradiction,—to offer that to the world which I dislike myself; and in all things I have no greater an ambition than to be believed a person that would rather be unkind to myself, than ungrateful to others.
I have made this excuse for myself, I offer none for my writings, but freely leave the reader to condemn that which has received my sentence
8 The bookseller by whom Sir Robert Howard's plays were published.
already. Yet I shall presume to say something in the justification of our nation's plays, though not of my own ; since, in my judgment, without being partial to my country, I do really prefer our plays as much before any other nation's, as I do the best of our's before my own.
The manner of the stage-entertainments have differed in all ages; and as it has encreased in use, it has enlarged itself in business: the general manner of plays among the ancients we find in Seneca's tragedies, for serious subjects, and in Terence and Plautus, for the comical ; in which latter we see some pretences to plots, though certainly short of what we have seen in some of Mr. Jonson's plays; and for their wit, especially Plautus, I suppose it suited much better in those days than it would do in ours; for were their plays strictly translated, and presented on our stage, they would hardly bring as many audiences as they have now admirers.
The serious plays were anciently composed of speeches and choruses, where all things are related, but no matter of fact presented on the stage: this pattern the French do at this time nearly follow; only leaving out the chorus, making up their plays with almost entire and discoursive scenes, presenting the business in relations. This way has very much affected some of our nation, who possibly believe well of it, more upon the account that what the French do ought to be a fashion, than upon the reason of the thing.
It is first necessary to consider why, probably, the compositions of the ancients, especially in their serious plays, were after this manner; and it will be found, that the subjects they commonly chose drove them upon the necessity, which were usually the most known stories and fables. Accordingly, Seneca making choice of Medea, Hyppolitus, and Hercules Oetus, it was impossible to shew Medea throwing old mangled Æson into her age-renewing caldron, or to present the scattered limbs of Hyppolitus: upon the stage, or shew Hercules burning upon his own funeral pile : and this the judicious Horace clearly speaks of in his Arte Poetica, where he says,
Non tamen intus
Quodcunque ostendis mihi sic, incredulus odi. į So that it appears a fault to choose such subjects
for the stage, but much greater to affect that method which those subjects enforce; and therefore the French seem much mistaken, who, without the necessity, sometimes commit the error : and this is as plainly decided by the same author in his preceding words:
Aut agitur res in scenis, aut acta refertur :
Ipse sibi tradit spectator.
every thing makes more impression presented than related. Nor, indeed, can any one rationally assert the contrary; for if they affirm otherwise, they do by consequence maintain, that a whole play might be as well related as acted: therefore, whoever chooses a subject that enforces him to relations, is to blame ; and he that does it without the necessity of the subject, is much more.
If these premises be granted, it is no partiality to conclude, that our English plays justly challenge the pre-eminence ; yet I shall as candidly acknowledge, that our best poets have differed from other nations, (though not so happily,) in usually mingling and interweaving mirth and sadness through the whole course of their plays, Ben Jonson only excepted, who keeps himself entire to one argument. And I confess I am now convinced in my own judgment, that it is most proper to keep the audience in one entire disposition both of concern and attention ; for when scenes of so different natures immediately succeed one another, it is probable the audience may not so suddenly recollect themselves, as to start into an enjoyment of the mirth, or into a concern for the sadness. Yet I dispute not but the variety of this world may afford pursuing accidents of such different natures : but yet, though possible in themselves to be, they may not be so proper to be presented; an entire connexion being the natural beauty of all plays, and language the ornament to dress them in; which, in serious subjects, ought to be great and easy, like a high-born person, that expresses greatness without pride or affectation. The easier dictates of nature ought to flow in Comedy, yet separated from obsceneness, there being nothing more impudent than the immodesty of words : wit should be chaste; and those that have it can only write well :
Scimus inurbanum lepido seponere dicto. Another way of the ancients, which the French follow, and our stage has now lately practised; is, to write in rhyme ; and this is the dispute betwixt many ingenious persons, whether verse in rhyme, or verse without the sound, which may be called blank verse, (though a hard expression,) is to be preferred. But take the question largely, and it is never to be decided ; but, by right application, I suppose it may; for in the general, they are both proper, that is, one for a play, the other for a poem or copy of verses ; a blank verse being as much too low for one, as rhyme is unnatural for the other. A poem being a premeditated form of thoughts upon designed occasions, ought not to be unfurnished of any harmony in words or sound; the other is presented as the present effect of accidents not thought of: so that it is impossible it should be equally proper to both these, unless it were possible that all persons were born so much more than poets, that verses were not to be composed by them, but already made in them. Some may object, that this argument is trivial, because,