Page images
PDF
EPUB

villain is the prominent figure of the piece, he will be the hero of the tragedy, as the robber, though he is about to be hanged, is the hero of the trial or the execution. But even of the nobler characters does not the morality of sentiment often yield to the immorality of situation ? Treachery is often the fruit of wisdom and of resolution; murder, an exertion of valour; and suicide, the resource of virtuous affliction. It will be remembered, that it is not so much from what the hero says, as from what he does, that an impression is drawn. The repentant lines which Cato speaks when he is dying are never regarded. It is the dagger only we remember, that dagger by which he escaped from chains, and purchased immortality.

But the leading passion of modern tragedy is one to which Aristotle could scarce have meant his rule to apply; because in ancient tragedy it was almost unknown. The passion I allude to is love. The manners and society of modern times necessarily led to this change in the drama. For the observation which some authors have made is perfectly just, that the sentiments of the stage will always be such as are flattering, rather than corrective of national manners and national failings; superstition in Greece, gallantry in France, freedom and courage in England. In every popular exhibition this must be the case. Even the sacredness and authority of the pulpit is not exempted from its influence. In polite chapels, preachers exhort to morality; in crowded churches of less fashionable people, they enlarge on doctrinal subjects, on faith and sanctification. But the very existence of the stage depends on that public opinion which it is not to reform but to conciliate; and Dr. Johnson's ex, pression is not the less true for its quaintness;

They that live to please, must please to live.' To this necessary conformity to the manners of the

young,

áudience is owing the introduction of love into almost all our dramatic compositions; and those, as might be expected, are most in favour with the where this passion is allowed the most extensive influence, and the most unlimited power. It was this which, when it was the fashion for genteel people to pay attention to tragedies, drew such audiences to Lee's Theodosius, and to Dryden's Anthony and Cleopatra, where the length of the speeches, and the thinness of the incidents, would have been as tiresome to them as a sermon, had it not been for a tenderness and an extravagance of that passion, which every girl thought she could feel, and believed she could understand. The moral consequences of such a drama it is unnecessary to question. Even where this passion is purified and refined to its utmost degree, it may be fairly held that every species of composition, whether narrative or dramatic, which places the only felicity of life in successful love, is unfavourable to the strength and purity of a young mind. It holds forth that single object to the ambition and pursuit of both sexes, and thus tends to enfeeble and repress every other exertion. This increases a source of weakness and corruption, which it is the business of a good instructor to correct and overcome, by setting before the minds of his pupils other objects, other attainments, of a nobler and less selfish kind. But in that violence, in that tyranny of dominion, with which Love is invested in many of our tragedies, it overbears every virtue and every duty. Îhe obligations of justice and of humanity sink before it. The king, the chief, the patriot, forgets his people, his followers, and his country; while parents and children mention the dearest objects of natural attachment only to lead them in the triumph of their love.

It is the business of tragedy to exhibit the passions, that is, the weaknesses of men. Ancient tra

gedy showed them in a simple manner; virtue and vice were strongly and distinctly marked, wisdom and weakness were easily discriminated; and though vice might be sometimes palliated, and weakness excused, the spectator could always discover the character of each. But in the modern drama there is an uncertain sort of outline, a blended colouring, by which

the distinction of these objects is frequently lost. The refinement of modern audiences calls for shades of character more delicate than those which the stage formerly exhibited; the consequence is, that the bounds of right and wrong are often so uncertainly marked as not to be easily distinguished; and if the powers of poetry, or the eloquence of sentiment, should be on the side of the latter, it will require a greater firmness of mind than youth or inexperience is master of to resist it.

Reason condemns every sort of weakness; but passion, enthusiasm, and sickly sensibility, have dignified certain weaknesses with the name of amiable; and the young, of whom some are susceptible, and others affect susceptibility, think it often an honour to be subject to their control. In tragedy, or tragic writing, they often find such characters for their imitation. Such characters being various, complicated, and fluctuating, are the properest for tragedy. The poets have not neglected to avail themselves of that circumstance: their dramas are filled with such characters, who shift the hue and colour of their minds, according to the change of situation or the variety of incident, or sometimes, whose minds, in the hands of the poet, produce that change, and create that variety. "Wisdom and virtue, simple, uniform, and unchanging, only superior artists can draw, and superior spectators enjoy.

N.

[merged small][ocr errors]

Continuation of the Remarks upon Tragedy. The high heroic virtue we see exemplified in tragedy warms the imagination and swells the mind; but being distant from the ordinary feelings and exertions of life, has, I suspect, but little influence upon

the conduct. On the contrary, it may be fairly doubted whether this play of the fancy, in the walks of virtue and benevolence, does not lessen the exertion of those qualities in practice and reality. Indocilis privata loqui,

' said Lucan, of Cæsar: so in some measure, he who is deeply conversant in the tragic phrase, in the swelling language of compassion, of generosity, and of love, finding no parallel in his common intercourse with mankind, will not so readily open his heart to the calls on his feeling, which the vulgar distresses of his fellow-creatures, or the ordinary relations of life, may occasion. In stage misfortunes, in fancied sufferings, the drapery of the figure hides its form; and real distress, coming in a homely and unornamented state, disgusts the eye which had poured its tears over the hero of tragic misery, or the martyr of romantic woe. Real calamity offends with its coarseness, and therefore is not produced on the scene, which exhibits in its stead the fantastic griefs of a delicate and high-wrought sensibility. Lillo, in his Fatal Discovery, presented extreme poverty as the distress of the scene; and the moral of his piece was to inculcate, that poverty was not to be shunned, nor

wealth pursued, at the expense of honesty and virtue. A modern audience did not relish a distress so real, but gave

their tears to the widow of St. Valori, who was mad for the loss of a husband killed twenty years before. From the same cause, the Gamester, one of the best and most moral of our latter tragedies, though successively represented by the greatest players, has never become popular. And even now the part of Mrs. Beverly (the first character of the first actress in the world) is performed to indifferent houses.

The tragic poet is striving to distress his hero that he may move his audience: it is not his business to equalize the affliction to the evil that occasions it; the effect is what he is to exhibit, which he is to clothe in the flowing language of poetry, and the high colouring of imagination; and if the cause be not very disproportionate indeed, the reader, or the spectator, will not find fault with it. Castalio, in the Orphan (a play so grossly immoral, that it were unfair in me to quote it, except as illustrative of this single argument,) is mad with anguish and with rage, because his wife's maid refuses him access to her apartment, according to the previous appointment they had made; and Orosmane, in Zayre, remains 'immobile, et sa langue glacée, because his bride begs him to defer their marriage for a day. Yet these were disappointments which the lover of Otway, and much more the hero of Voltaire, might surely have borne with greater fortitude.

If we are to apply all this in example, it seems to have a tendency to weaken our mind to our own sufferings, without opening it to the sufferings of others. The real evils which the dignity of the scene hides from our view are those which we ought to pity in our neighbours; the fantastic and imaginary distresses which it exhibits are those we are apt to indulge in ourselves. Here then tragedy adds to the

VOL. I.

« PreviousContinue »