« PreviousContinue »
made with reference to the German stage many years ago; they are applicable to the English stage no farther than as it now agrees with the preceding description. Knox censures buffoonery and ribaldry on the stage, but highly celebrates the Tragic Muse. He seems to think there is no method more effectual for softening the ferocity, and improving the minds of the lower classes of a great capital, than the frequent exhibition of tragical pieces, on which the distress is carried to the highest extreme, and the moral at once self-evident, affecting, and instructive. The multitudes of those who cannot read, or, if they could, have neither time nor abilities for deriving much advantage from reading, are powerfully impressed, through the medium of the eyes and ears, with those important truths, which, while they illuminate the understanding, correct and mollify the heart. Benevolence, justice, heroism, and the wisdom of moderating the passions, are plainly pointed out, and forcibly recommended to those savage sons of uncultivated nature, who have few opportunities, and would have no inclination for instruction, if it did not present itself under the form of a delightful amusement. The human heart in general, whether it beats in the bosom of him who has been improved by education, or of the neglected child of poverty, is taught to exercise some of its most amiable propensities by the indulgence of commiseration in scenes of fancied woe. Were the theatre under certain regulations, a man might go to it as he goes to church, to learn his duty, and it might justly be honoured with the appellation, which it has often assumed, and be called the School of Virtue.
Howel, in his "Londinopolis," speaking of the 'tragedies, comedies, histories, and interludes,' that were in his day represented in the various theatres of the metropolis, says, “It was a true observation, that those comical and tragical histories did much improve and enrich the English language; they taught young men witty compliments, and how to carry their bodies in a handsome posture; add hereunto, that they instructed them in the stories of divers things, which being so lively represented to the eye, made firmer impressions in the memory. Lastly, they reclaimed many from vice and vanity;
for though a comedy be never so wanton, yet it ends with virtue, and the punishment of vice.”
Indeed, there is no class of people, however refined and polished, which may not receive such benefits from a well-written tragedy, as scarcely any other mode of instruction can afford. He who has entered into all the feelings of a Shakspeare, an Otway, a Rowe, an Addison, may be said to have assimilated with their souls, and snatched a sacred spark, which cannot fail to kindle something in himself resembling the ethereal fire of true genius. His nature will be improved, and a species of wisdom and elevation of spirit, which was in vain sought for in academic groves, may at last be imbibed in the theatres. Philosophy may catch a warmth from the drama, which is capable of advancing it to nobler heights than she would otherwise have attained. Socrates, whose benevolence and wisdom appeared to partake of the nature of divinity, was the voluntary assistant of Euripides in the composition of his tragedies; and undoubtedly was of opinion that he taught philosophy to instruct the herd of mankind in the most effectual manner, when he introduced her to their notice in the buskin. This elegant writer further remarks, that the addition of a ludricous epilogue, a farce, pantomine, entertainments, and of dances betweeen the acts, has often been lamented as destructive of the effects of the finest tragedy. It is true, that they who live to please, must please in order to live; and therefore the players and their managers are not culpable. They must not only provide manly amusements for men, but childish diversions for children and schoolboys. These entertainments have, indeed, often that ingenuity and drollery in them, which may, at a proper season, relax the most rigid philosophy. I censure not the things themselves, but the time of their introduction. After the soul has been deeply impressed with serious and virtuous sentiments, it is surely lamentable, that every mark should be effaced by harlequins and buffoons. It must be remembered, that I am speaking only of the moral effects of the
drama, and I believe every one will agree, that those would be more successfully produced, if the entertainment, as it is called by way of eminence, preceded the tragedy. The spectator would then retire to his pillow with his fancy full of fine poetic images, and his heart glowing with every elevated idea of moral rectitude. But now, his feelings are so trifled with, and tantalized, that at last he grows callous to the tenderest pathos, and visits the theatre merely as a critic in acting, instead of an interesting participator in the scenes which pass in review.
In this country, an excessive outcry for religious propriety once led to an entire suppression of the dramatic art. The drama had just burst forth in splendour, and actors and theatres were rising to do justice to the noble conceptions of a Shakspeare, a Jonson, a Beaumont, and a Fletcher, when the spirit of puritanism rose, and suppressed the theatre. This was effected by two Ordinances of the Long Parliament, dated the 22nd of October, 1647, and the 11th of February, 1647-8, by which all stage plays and interludes were positively forbidden, and the seats and galleries of the theatres ordered to be pulled down. All the stage players, and players of interludes, and common plays, were declared to be rogues, and liable to be punished according to the statutes of the 39th of Queen Elizabeth, and 7th of James I. The lord mayor, justices, and sherifls, were ordered to demolish all playhouses, and apprehend any persons guilty of acting, who were to be publicly whipped, bound in recognizances to act no more, and in case of a second offence, they were declared incorrigible rogues, and to be punished and dealt with as such. It was also declared, that all money collected at playhouses, should be forfeited to the poor; and a penalty of five shillings imposed on every person who should be present at any dramatic entertainment. Before this severe ordinance, the performers had been frequently interrupted, even from the commencement of hostilities between the king and his parliament, the
issue of which was alike fatal to monarchy and to
On the suppression of the theatres, nearly the whole of the performers entered the arıny in favour of the royal cause, and many of them died in defending it. When the wars were over, and the cause of royalty entirely overcome, the surviving dependants of the drama made up a company out of the scattered remains of several, and in the winter of 1648, they ventured to act some plays, with as much caution and privacy as possible, at the Cock Pit. They continued undisturbed for three or four days, but at last, as they were presenting the tragedy of the “ Bloody Brother,” a party of foot soldiers beset the house, surprised them about the middle of the play, and carried them away in their habits to Hatton House, then a prison, where having detained them some time, they plundered them of their clothes, and then let them loose again. Afterwards, in Oliver's time, they used to act privately three or four miles from town, sometimes in noblemen's houses, particularly in Holland House, Kensington, where the nobility and gentry who met (but in no great numbers) used to make up a purse for them. Alexander Goffe, the woman actor at Blackfriars, used to be the Jackall, and give notice of time and place. Sometimes, during Christmas, and Bartholomew Fair, they would, with the connivance of the officer of the Gaurd at Whitehall, perform plays for a few days at the Red Bull; but they were often disturbed by soldiers, and committed to prison. The actors who survived to this period, felt the greatest distress, and were obliged to draw forth the MSS. of their contemporaries, which they had in their possession ; and many plays were published, which might otherwise have never seen the light.
Amidst the gloom of fanaticism which sought the entire destruction of the stage, and while the royal cause was considered as desperate, Sir William Davenant, without molestation, exhibited entertainments of declamation and music, after the manner of the ancients, at Rutland House. He began in the year 1656, and two years afterwards removed to the Cock Pit, Drury Lane, where he performed until the eve of the Restoration. It appears from “ Jordan's Rosary of Rarities,” that even some of Shakspeare's and Ben Jonson's plays were considered dangerous by the puritans, as well as those that were occasionally written in the beginning of the civil wars, to reflect on the managers of the state; and that this was the cause of their silencing the stage at that time.
In times when manly minds are necessary to save a sinking empire, and to retard the decline of a degenerating people, every mode of improving the hearts of the community at large, in the serious and severer virtues, ought to be applied with avidity. The theatre opens a fine school for the accomplishment of this end ; and it would certainly contribute greatly to ac• celerate the general improvement, if there were less singing, dancing, and buffoonery, with more tragedy. But some great man, by which epithet I mean, in this place, a titled and fashionable man, must set the example of admiring it, or else all the muses themselves might rack their inventions in composing the melancholy tale, with no other effect than that of diffusing sleep throughout pit, box, and gallery.
I must not, however, be considered either an advocate for stage amusements, or an opposer of them. I profess myself equally an enemy to licentious amusements and gloomy fanaticism; but I do not consider christianity incompatible with innocent recreations. What recreations are innocent, let every man settle by his own judgment and conscience, according to his religious views, hopes, and fears.
A greater injury cannot be done to religion, than that of clothing it in a dismal and gloomy dress. The man who holds up religion to the world as a foe to human joy, as a thing fit to be entertained by none but the dejected and desponding; and which, like the bird of night, dwells only with solitude and darkness-such a one, by the ghastly picture he exhibits,