« PreviousContinue »
But all the love scenes in the play; the passion of Cato's two sons for Lucia, and that of Juba for Cato's daughter, are mere episodes; have no connection with the principal action, and no effect upon it. The author thought his subject too barren in incidents, and, in order to diversify it, he has given us, as it were, by the bye, a history of the amours that were going on in Cato's family; by which he hath both broken the unity of his subject, and formed a very unseasonable junction of gallantry, with the high sentiments and public-spirited passions which predominate in other parts, and which the play was chiefly designed to display.
We must take care not to confound the unity of the action with the simplicity of the plot. Unity and simplicity import different things in dramatic composition. The plot is said to be simple, when a small number of incidents are introduced into it. But it may be implex, as the critics term it, that is, it may include a considerable number of persons and events, and yet not be deficient in unity; provided all the incidents be made to tend towards the principal object of the play, and be properly connected with it. All the Greek tragedies not only maintain unity in the action, but are remarkably simple in the plot; to such a degree, indeed, as sometimes to appear to us too naked, and destitute of interesting events. In the CEdipus Coloneus, for instance, of Sophocles, the whole subject is no more than this: CEdipus, blind and miserable, wanders to Athens, and wishes to die there; Creon, and his son Polynices, arrive at the same time, and endeavour, separately, to persuade the old man to return to Thebes, each with a view to his own interest; he will not go; Theseus, the King of Athens, protects him; and the play ends with his death. In the Philoctetes of the same author, the plot, or fable, is nothing more than Ulysses and the son of Achilles, studying to persuade the diseased Philoctetes to leave his uninhabited island, and go with them to Troy; which he refuses to do, till Hercules, whose arrows he possessed, descends from heaven and commands him. Yet these simple, and seemingly barren subjects, are wrought up with so much art by Sophocles, as to become very tender and affecting.
Among the moderns, much greater variety of events has been admitted into tragedy. It has become more the theatre of passion than it was among the ancients. A greater display of characters is attempted; more intrigue and action are carried on; our curiosity is more awakened, and more interesting situations arise. This variety is, upon the whole, an improvement on tragedy; it renders the entertainment both more animated and more instructive; anS when kept within due bounds, may be perfectly consistent with unity of subject. But the poet must, at the same time, beware of not deviating too far from simplicity in the construction of this fable. For if he overcharges it with action and intrigue, it becomes perplexed and embarrassed; and, by consequence, loses much of its effect. Congreve's "Mourning Bride," a tragedy, otherwise far from being void of merit, fails in this respect; and may be given as an instance of one standing in perfect opposition to the simplicity of the ancient plots. The incidents succeed one another toq rapidT ly. The play is too full of busipess. Jt is difficult for the mind to follow and comprehend the whole series of events; and, what is the greatest fault of all, the catastrophe, which ought always to be plaip apd simple, js bropght about in a manner too artificial and intricate.
Unity of action must not only be studied in the general construction of the fable, or plot, but must regulate the several acts and scenes, into which the play is divided.
The division of every play, into five acts, has no other foundation than common practice, and the authority of Horace: Neve minor, neu sit quinto productior actu Fabula———— De Arte Poet.*
It is a division purely arbitrary. There is nothing in the nature of the composition which fixes this number rather than any other; and it had been much better if no such number had been ascertained, but every play had been allowed to divide itself into as many parts, or intervals, as the subject naturally pointed out. On the Greek stage, whatever may have been the case on the Roman, the division by acts was totally unknown. The word act never once occurs in Aristotle's poetics, in which he defines exactly every part of the drama, and divides it into the beginning, the middle, and the end; or, in his own words, into the prologue, the episode, and the exode. The Greek tragedy was, indeed, one continued representation, from beginning to end. The stage was never empty, nor the curtain let fall. But, at certain intervals, when the actors retired, the chorus continued and sung. Neither do these songs of the chorus divide the Greek tragedies into five portions, similar to our acts; though some of the commentators have endeavoured to force them into this office. But it is plain, that the intervals at which the chorus sung, are extremely unequal and irregular, suited to the
• If you would have your play deserve success, Give it five acts complete, nor more, nor less. Francis.
B B 2. . . . ,.
occasion and the subject; and would divide the play sometime« into three, sometimes into seven or eight acts.*
As practice has now established a different plan on the modern stage, has divided every play into five acts, and made a total pause in the representation at the end of each act, the poet must be careful that this pause shall fall in a proper place; where there is a. natural pause in the action; and where, if the imagination has any thing to supply, that is not represented on the stage, it may be supposed to have been transacted during the interval.
The first act ought to contain a clear exposition of the subject. It ought to be so managed as to awaken the curiosity of the spectators; and, at the same time, to furnish them with materials for understanding the sequel. It should make them acquainted with the personages who are to appear, with their several views and interests, and with the situation of affairs at the time when the play commences. A striking introduction, such as the first speech of Almeria, in the Mourning Bride, and that of Lady Randolph, in Douglas, produces a happy effect; but this is what the subject will not always admit. In the ruder times of dramatic writing, the exposition of the subject was wont to be made by a prologue, or by a single actor appearing, and giving full and direct information to the spectators. Some of TEschylus's and Euripides's plays are opened in this manner. But such an introduction is extremely inartificial, and therefore is now totally abolished, and the subject made to open itself by conversation, among the first actors who are brought upon the stage.
During the course of the drama, in thesecond, third, and fourth acts, the plot should gradually thicken. The great 'object which the poet ought here to have in view, is,'by interesting us in his story, to keep our passions always awake. As soon as he allows us to languish, there is no more tragic merit. He should, therefore, introduce no personages but such as are necessary for carrying on the action. He should contrive to place those whom he finds it proper to introduce, in the most interesting situations. He should have no scenes of idle conversation, or mere declamation. The action of the play ought to be always advancing; and, as it advances, the suspense, and the concern of the spectators, to be raised more and more. This is the 'great excellency of Shakespeare, that his scenes are full of sentiment and action, never of mere discourse; whereas, it is often a fault of the best French tragedians, that they allow the action to languish for the sake of a long and artful dia
•-See the dissertation prefixed to Franklin's translation of Sophocles.
logue. Sentiment, passion, pity, and terror, should reign throughout a tragedy. Every thing should be full of movements. An useless incident, or an unnecessary conversation, weakens the interest which we take in the action, and renders us cold and inattentive.
The fifth act is the seat of the catastrophe, or the unravelling of the plot, in which we always expect the art and genius of the poet to be most fully displayed. The first rule concerning it, is, that it be brought about by probable and natural means. Hence all unrarellings which turn upon disguised habits, rencounters by night, mistakes of one person for another, and other such theatrical and romantic circumstances, are to be condemned as faulty. In the next place, the catastrophe ought always to be simple; to depend on few events, and to include but few persons. Passion never rises so high when it is divided among many objects, as when it is directed towards one, or a few. And it is still more checked, if the incidents be so complex and intricate, that the understanding is put on the stretch to trace them, when the heart should be wholly delivered up to emotion. The catastrophe of the Mourning Bride, as I formerly hinted, offends against both these rules. In the last place, the catastrophe of a tragedy ought to be the reign of pure sentiment and passion. In proportion as it approaches, every thing should warm and glow. No long discourses; no cold reasonings; no parade of genius, in the midst of those solemn and awful events, that close some of the great revolutions of human fortune. There, if any where, the poet must be simple, serious, pathetic; and speak no language but that of nature.
The ancients were fond of unravellings, which turned upon what is called, an "Anagnorisis," or, a discovery of some person to be different from what he was taken to be. When such discoveries are artfully conducted, and produced in critical situations, they are extremely striking; such as that famous one in Sophocles, which makes the whole subject of his CEdipus Tyrannus, and which is, undoubtedly, the fullest of suspense, agitation, and terror, that ever was exhibited on any stage. Among the moderns, two of the most distinguished Anagnorises, are those contained in Voltaire's Merope, and Mr. Home's Douglas; both of which are great masterpieces of the kind.
It is not essential to the catastrophe of a tragedy, that it should end unhappily. In the course of the play there may be sufficient agitation and distress, and many tender emotions raised by the sufferings and dangers of the virtuous, though, in the end, good men are rendered successful. The tragic spirit, therefore, does not want scope upon this system; and, accordingly, the Athalie of Racine, and some of Voltaire's finest plays, such as Alzire, Merope, and the Orphan of China, with some few English tragedies likewise, have a fortunate conclusion. But, in general, the spirit of tragedy, especially of English tragedy, leans more to the side of leaving the impression of virtuous sorrow, full and strong upon the heart.
A question, intimately connected with this subject, and which has employed the speculations of several philosophical critics, naturally occurs here: how it comes to pass that those emotions of sorrow, which tragedy excites, afford any gratification to the mind? For, is not sorrow, in its nature, a painful passion? Is not real distress often occasioned to the spectators, by the dramatic representations at which they assist? Do we not see their tears flow? and yet, while the impression of what they have suffered, remains upon their minds, they again assemble in crowds, to renew the same distresses. The question is not without difficulty, and various solutions of it have been proposed by ingenious men.* The most plain and satisfactory account of the matter, appears to be the following. By the wise and gracious constitution of our nature, the exercise of all the social passions is attended with pleasure. Nor thing is more pleasing and grateful, than love and friendship.— Wherever man takes a strong interest in the concerns of his fellow creatures, an internal satisfaction is made to accompany the feeling. Pity, or compassion, in particular, is, for wise ends, appointed to be one of the strongest instincts of our frame, and is attended with a peculiar attractive power. It is an affection which cannot but be productive of some distress, on account of the sympathy with the sufferers, which it necessarily involves. But, as it includes benevolence and friendship, it partakes, at the same time, of the agreeable and pleasingnature of those affections. The heart is warmed by kindness and humanity, at the same moment at which it is afflicted by the distresses of those with whom it sympathises: and the pleasure arising from those kind emotions, prevails so much in the mixture, and so far counterbalances the pain, as to render the state of the mind, upon the whole, agreeable. At the same time, the immediate pleasure, which always goes along with the operation of the benevolent and sympathetic affections, derives an addition from
* See Dr. Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric, Book I. ch.xi. where an account is giyen of the hypotheses of different critics on this subject, and where one is proposed with which, in the main, I agree.—Sec also Lord Kaimes's Essays on the Principles %f .Morality, Lssay I. . And Mr. David Hume's Essay on Tragedy.