« PreviousContinue »
CONTENTS OF VOL. V.
I Am desirous to anticipate a censure which the critical reader will be ready to bring forward on the apparent inconsistency between the contents of this volume, composed of dramatic pieces, and several sentiments not unfrequently introduced in some of the other volumes, respecting the dangerous tendency of certain public amusements, in which dramatic entertainments will be naturally included. The candid reader will be able to solve the paradox, when it is intimated at what different periods of life these different pieces were written. The dates, if they were regularly preserved, would explain that the seeming disagreement does not involve a contradiction, as it proceeds not from an inconsistency, but from a revolution in the sentiments of the author.
From my youthful course of reading, and early habits of society and conversation, aided, perhaps, by that natural but secret bias which the inclination gives to the judgment, I had been led to entertain that common, but, as I must now think, delusive and groundless hope, that the stage, under certain regulations, might be converted into a school of virtue; and thus, like many others, inferred, by a seemingly reasonable conclusion, that though a bad play would always be a bad thing, yet the representation of a good one might become not only harmless, but useful; and that it required nothing more than a correct judgment and a critical selection, to transform a pernicious pleasure into a profitable entertainment.
On these grounds (while, perhaps, as was intimated above, it was nothing more than the indulgence of a propensity), I was led to flatter myself it might be rendering that inferior service to society which the fabricator of safe and innocent amusements may reasonably be supposed to confer, to attempt some theatrical compositions, which, whatever other defects might be justly imputable to them, should at least be found to have been written on the side of virtue and modesty; and which should neither hold out any corrupt image to the mind, nor any impure description to the fancy.
As the following pieces were written and performed at an early period of my life, under the above impressions, I feel it a kind of duty (imploring pardon for the unavoidable egotism to which it leads), not to send them afresh into the world in this collection, without prefixing to them a candid declaration of my altered view. In so doing, I am fully aware that I equally subject myself to the opposite censures of two different classes of readers, one of which will think that the best evidence of my sincerity would have been the suppression of the tragedies themselves, while the other will reprobate the change of sentiment which gives birth to the qualify
I should, perhaps, have been inclined to adopt the first of these two opinions, had it not occurred to me that the suppression would be thought disingenuous; and had I not been also desirous of grounding on the publication, though in a very cursory manner, my sentiments on the general tendency of the drama; for it appeared but fair and candid to include in this view my own compositions; and thus, in some measure, though without adverting to them, to involve myself in the general object of my own animadversions.
I am not even now about to controvert the assertion of some of the ablest critics, that a well-written tragedy is, perhaps, one of the noblest efforts of the human mind—I am not even now about to deny, that of all public amusements, it is the most interesting, the most intellectual, and the most accommodated to the tastes and capacities of a rational being; nay, that it is almost the only one which has mind for its object; which has the combined advantage of addressing itself to the imagination, the judgment, and the heart; that it is the only public diversion which calls out the higher energies of the understanding in the composition, and awakens the most lively and natural feelings of the heart in the representation.
With all this decided superiority in point of mental pleasure which the stage possesses over every other species of public entertainment, it is not to be wondered at that its admirers and advocates, even the most respectable, should cherish a hope, that, under certain restrictions, and under an improved form, it might be made to contribute to instruction as well as to pleasure; and it is on this plausible ground that we have heard so many ingenious defences of this species of amusement.
What the stage might be under another and an imaginary state of things, it is not very easy for us to know, and therefore not very important to inquire. Nor is it indeed the soundest logic to argue on the possible goodness of a thing, which, in the present circumstances of society, is doing positive evil, from the imagined good that thing might be conjectured to produce in a supposed state of unattainable improvement. Would it not be more safe and simple to determine our judgment as to the character of the thing in question, on the more visible, and therefore more rational grounds of its actual state, and from the effects which it is known to produce in that state?
For, unfortunately, this Utopian good cannot be produced, until not only the stage itself has undergone a complete purification, but until the audience shall be purified also. For we must first suppose a state of society in which the spectators will be disposed to relish all that is pure, and to reprobate all that is corrupt, before the system of a pure and uncorrupt theatre can be adopted with any reasonable hope of success. There must always be a con- gruity between the taste of the spectator and the nature of the spectacle, in order to effect that point of union which can produce pleasure; for it must be remembered that people go to a play, not to be instructed, but to be phased. As we do not send the blind to an exhibition of pictures, nor the deaf to a concert, so it would be leaving the projected plan of a pure stage in a state of imperfection, unless the general corruption of human nature itself were so reformed as to render the amusements of a perfectly purified stage palatable. If the sentiments and passions exhibited were no longer accommodated to the sentiments and passions of the audience, corrupt nature would soon withdraw itself from the vapid and inappropriate amusement; and thin, I will not say empty, benches would too probably be the reward of the conscientious reformer.
Far be it from me to wish to restore that obsolete rubbish of ignorance and folly with which the monkish legends furnished out the rude materials of our early drama: I mean those uncouth pieces in which, under the titles of mysteries and moralities, the most sacred persons were introduced as interlocutors; in which, events too solemn for exhibition, and subjects too awful for detail, were brought before the audience with a formal gravity more offensive than levity itself. The superstitions of the cloister were considered as suitable topics for the diversions of the stage; and celestial intelligences, uttering the sentiments and language, and blended with the buffooneries of Bartholomew fair, were regarded as appropriate subjects of merry-making for a holiday audience. But from this holy mummery, at which piety, taste, and common sense would be equally revolted, I return to the existing state of things.*
I have never perused any of those treatises, excellent as some of them are said to be, which pious divines have written against the pernicious tendency of theatrical entertainments. The convictions of my mind have arisen solely from experience and observation. I shall not, therefore, go over the well-trodden ground of those who have inveighed, with too much justice, against the immoral lives of too many stage professors, allowing always for some very honorable exceptions. I shall not remark on the gross and palpable corruptions of those plays which are obviously written with an open disregard to all purity and virtue; nor shall I attempt to show whether any very material advantage would arise to the vain and the dissipated, were they to exclude the theatre from its
* An enthusiast to the literature of my own country, and so jealous of its fame as grudgingly to allow its comparative inferiority in any one instance, I am yet compelled to acknowledge, that, as far as my slender reading enables me to form a judgment, the English dramatic poets are in general more licentious than those of most other countries. In that profligate reign,
When all the Muses were debauched at court, the stage attained its highest degree of dissoluteness. Mr. Garrick did a great deal towards its purification. It is said not to have since kept the ground it then gained.