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pleasure vanished; so that one main end of Dramatick Poesy in its definition, which was to cause delight, was of consequence destroyed.
In their comedies, the Romans generally borrowed their plots from the Greek poets; and theirs was commonly a little girl stolen or wandered from her parents, brought back unknown to the city, there got with child by some lewd young fellow, who, by the help of his servant, cheats his father ; and when her time comes, to cry-Juno Lucina, fer opem, one or other sees a little box or cabinet which was carried away with her, and so discovers her to her friends, if some god do not prevent it, by coming down in a machine, and taking the thanks of it to himself.
By the plot you may guess much of the characters of the persons. An old father, who would willingly, before he dies, see his son well married ; his debauched son, kind in his nature to his mistress, but miserably in want of money; a servant or slave, who has so much wit to strike in with him, and help to dupe his father ; a braggadocio captain, a parasite, and a lady of pleasure.
As for the poor honest maid, on whom the story is built, and who ought to be one of the principal actors in the play, she is commonly a mute in it: she has the breeding of the old Elizabeth way, which was for maids to be seen and not to be heard ; and it is enough you know she is willing to be married, when the fifth act requires it.
These are plots built after the Italian mode of
houses, you see through' them all at once : the characters are indeed the imitations of nature, but so narrow, as if they had imitated only an eye or an hånd, and did not dare to venture on the lines of a face, or the proportion of a body.
But in how strait a compass soever they have bounded their plots and characters, we will pass it by, if they have regularly pursued them, and perfectly observed those three unities of time, place, and action ; the knowledge of which you say is derived to us from them. But in the first place give me leave to tell you, that the unity of place, however it might be practised by them, was never any of their rules : we neither find it in Aristotle, Horace, or any who have written of it, till in our age the French poets first made it a precept of the stage. The unity of time, even Terence himself, who was the best and most regular of them, has neglected : his HêAUTONTIMORUMENOS, or SelfPunisher, takes up visibly two days, says Scaliger ; the two first acts concluding the first day, the three last the day ensuing; and Euripides, in tying himself to one day, has committed an absurdity never to be forgiven him ; for in one of his tragedies he has made Theseus go from Athens to Thebes, which was about forty English miles, under the walls of it to give battle, and appear victorious in the next act; and yet, from the time of his departure to the return of the Nuntius, who gives the relation of his victory, Æthra and the Chorus have but thirty-six verses; which is not for every mile a verse.
The like error is as evident in Terence his Eunuch, when Laches, the old man, enters by mistake into the house of Thais; where, betwixt his exit and the entrance of Pythias, who comes to give ample relation of the disorders he has raised within, Parmeno, who was left upon the stage, has not above five lines to speak. C'est bien : employer un temps si court, says the French poet, who furnished me with one of the observations : and almost all their tragedies will afford us examples of the like nature.
It is true, they have kept the continuity, or, as you called it, liaison des scenes, somewhat better : two do not perpetually come in together, talk, and go out together; and other two succeed them, and do the same throughout the act, which the English call by the name of single scenes; but the reason is, because they have seldom above two or three scenes, properly so called, in every act ; for it is to be accounted a new scene, not only every time the stage is empty, but every person who enters, though to others, makes it so; because he introduces a new business. Now the plots of their plays being narrow, and the persons few, one of their acts was written in a less compass than one of our wellwrought scenes; and yet they are often deficient even in this. To go no further than Terence; you find in the EUNUCH, Antipho entering single in the midst of the third act, after Chremes and Pythias were gone off: in the same play you have likewise Dorias beginning the fourth act alone ; and after she has made a relation of what was done
at the Soldier's entertainment, (which by the way was very inartificial, because she was presumed to speak directly to the audience, and to acquaint them with what was necessary to be known, but yet should have been so contrived by the poet as to have been told by persons of the drama to one another, and so by them to have come to the knowledge of the people,) she quits the stage, and Phædria enters next, alone likewise : he also gives you an account of himself, and of his returning from the country, in monologue; to which unnatural way of narration Terence is subject in all his plays. In his ADELPHI, or Brothers, Syrus and Demea enter after the scene was broken by the departure of Sostrata, Geta, and Canthara ; and indeed you can scarce look into any of his comedies, where you will not presently discover the same interruption.
But as they have failed both in laying of their plots, and in the management, swerving from the rules of their own art by misrepresenting nature to us, in which they have ill satisfied one intention of a play, which was delight; so in the instructive part they have erred worse : instead of punishing vice and rewarding virtue, they have often shewn a prosperous wickedness, and an unhappy piety : they have set before us a bloody image of revenge in Medea, and given her dragons to convey her safe from punishment; a Priam and Astyanax murdered, and Cassandra ravished, and the lust and murder ending in the victory of him who acted them : in short, there is no indecorum in any of
our-modern plays, which if I would excuse, I could not shadow with some authority from the ancients.
And one farther note of them let me leave you: tragedies and comedies were not writ then as they are now, promiscuously, by the same person ; but he who found his genius bending to the one, never attempted the other way. This is so plain, that I need not instance to you, that Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, never any of them writ a tragedy; Æschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Seneca, never meddled with comedy : the sock and buskin were not worn by the same poet. Having then so much care to excel in one kind, very little is to be pardoned them, if they miscarried in it; and this would lead me to the consideration of their wit, had not Crites given me sufficient warning not to be too bold in my judgment of it ; because, the languages being dead, and many of the customs and little accidents on which it depended, lost to us, we are not competent judges of it. But though I grant that here and there we may miss the application of a proverb or a custom, yet a thing well said will be wit in all languages; and though it may lose something in the translation, yet to him who reads it in the original, 'tis still the same: he has an idea of its excellency, though it cannot pass from his mind into any other expression or words than those in which he finds it. When
2 Dryden is here not correct. Euripides has left us one satirical drama, (somewhat resembling our tragicomedy,) entitled The Cyclops.