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THE BRITISH STAGE. ––Imitatio vita, speculum consuetudinis, impgo veritatis. Cicero. The Imitation of Life---The Mirror of Manners---The Representation of Truth.
Having now spoken of the conduct of the subject throughout the acts, it is also necessary to take notice of the conduct of the several scenes which make up the acts of a play. The entrance of a new personage upon the stage, forms, what is called, a new scene. These scenes, or successive conversations, should be closely linked and connected with each other; and much of the art of dramatic composition is shown in maintaining this connection. Two rules are necessary to be observed for this purpose. The first is, that, during the course of one act, the stage should never be left vacant, though but for a single moment; that is, all the persons who have appeared in one scene or conversation, should never go off together, and be succeeded by a new set of persons appearing in the next scene, independent of the former. This makes a gap, or total interruption in the representation, which, in effect, puts an end to that act. For, wherever the stage is evacuated, the act is closed, This rule is, very generally, observed by the French tragedians; but the English writers, both of comedy and tragedy, seldom pay any regard to it. Their personages succeed one another upon the stage with so little connection; the union of their scenes is so much broken, that, with equal propriety, their plays might be divided into ten or twelve acts, as into five. The second rule, which the English writers also observe little better than the former, is, that no person shall come upon the stage, or leave it, without a reason appearing to us, both for the one and the other. Nothing is more awkward, and contrary to art, than for an actor to enter, without our seeing any cause for his appearing in that scene, except that it was for the poet's purpose he should enter precisely at such a moment; or for an actor to go away without any reason for his retiring, farther than that the poet had no more speeches to put into his mouth. This is managing the personae "dramatis exactly like so many puppets, who are moved by wires, to
answer the call of the masters of the show. Whereas the perfection of dramatic writing requiresthat every thing should be conduct" ed in imitation, as near as possible, of some real transaction; where we are let into the secret of all that is passing, where we behold persons before us always busy; see them coming and going; and know perfectly whence they come, and whither they go, and about what they are employed. All that I have hitherto said, relates to the unity of the dramatic action. In order to render the unity of action more complete, critics have added the other two unities of time and place. The strict observance of these is more difficult, and, perhaps, not so necessary. The unity of place requires, that the scene should never be shifted; but that the action of the play should be continued to the end, in the same place where it is supposed to begin. The unity of time, strictly taken, requires, that the time of the action be no longer than the time that is allowed for the representation of the play; though Aristotle seems to have given the poet a little more liberty, and permitted the action to comprehend the whole time of one day. The intention of both these rules is, to overcharge, as little as possible, the imagination of the spectators with improbable circumstances in the acting the play, and to bring the imitation more close to reality. We must observe, that the nature of dramatic exhibitions upon the Greek stage subjected the ancient tragedians to a more strict observance of these unities than is necessary in modern theatres. I showed, that a Greek tragedy was one uninterrupted representation, from beginning to end. There was no division of acts; no pauses or interval between them; but the stage was continually full; occupied either by the actors or the chorus. Hence, no room was left for the imagination to go beyond the precise time and place of the representation; any more than is allowed during the continuance of one act, on the modern theatre. But the practice of suspending the spectacle totally for some little time between the acts, has made a great and material change; gives more latitude to the imagination, and renders the ancient strict confinement to time and place less necessary. While the acting of the play is interrupted, the spectator can, without any great or violent effort, suppose a few hours to pass between every act; or can suppose himself moved from one apartment of a palace, or one part of a city to another: and, therefore, too strict an observance of these unities, ought not to be preferred to higher beauties of exe1, L-VOL. xvi.
----cution, nor to the introduction of more pathetic situations, which sometimes cannot be accomplished in any other way, than by the transgression of these rules. On the ancient stage, we plainly see the poets struggling with many an inconvenience, in order to preserve those unities which were then so necessary. As the scene could never be shifted, they were obliged to make it always lie in some court of a palace, or some public area, to which all the persons concerned in the action might have equal access. This led to frequent improbabilities, by representing things as transacted there, which naturally ought to have been transacted before few witnesses, and in private apartments. The like improbabilities arose, from limiting themselves so much in point of time. Incidents were unnaturally crowded; and it is easy to point out several instances in the Greek tragedies where events are supposed to pass during a song of the chorus, which must necessarily have employed many hours. But though it seems necessary to set modern poets free from a strict observance of these dramatic unities, yet we must remember there are certain bounds to this liberty. Frequent and wild changes of time and place; hurrying the spectator from one distant city, or country, to another; or making several days or weeks to pass during the course of the representation, are liberties which shock the imagination, which give to the performance a romantic and unnatural appearance, and, therefore, cannot be allowed in any dramatic writer, who aspires to correctness. In particular, we must remember, that it is only between the acts, that any liberty can be given for going beyond the unities of time and place. During the course of each act, they ought to be strictly observed; that is, during each act the scene should continue the same, and no more time should be supposed to pass, than is employed in the representation of that act. This is a rule which the French tragedians regularly observe. To violate this rule, as is too oftcn done by the English; to change the place, and shift the scene, in the midst of one act, shews great incorrectness, and destroys the whole intention of the . division of a play into acts. Mr. Addison's Cato is remarkably beyond most English tragedies, for regularity of conduct. The author has limited himself, in time, to a single day; and in place, has maintained the most rigorous unity. The scene is never changed; and the whole action passes in the hall of Cato's house, at Utica. In general, the nearer a poet can bring the dramatic representation, in all its circumstances, to an imitation of nature and real life, the impression which he makes on us will always be the more
perfect. Probability, as I observed at the beginning of the lecture, is highly essential to the conduct of the tragic action, and we are always hurt by the want of it. It is this that makes the observance of the dramatic unities to be of consequence, as far as they can be observed, without sacrificing more material beauties. It is not, as has been sometimes said, that, by the preservation of the unities of time and place, spectators are deceived into a belief of the reality of the objects which are set be fore them on the stage; and that, when those unities are violated, the charm is broken, and they discover the whole to be a faction. No such deception as this can ever be accomplished. No one ever imagines himself to be at Athens, or Rome, when a Greek or Roman subject is presented on the stage. He knows the whole to be an imitation only; but he requires that imitation to be conducted with skill and verisimilitude. His pleasure, the entertainment which he expects, the interest which he is to take in the story, all depend on its being so conducted. His imagination, therefore, seeks to aid the imitation, and to rest on the probability; and the poet, who shocks him by improbable circumstances, and by awkward, unskilful imitation, deprives him of his pleasure, and leaves him hurt and displeased. This is the whole mystery of the theatrical illusion.
SEYMOUR'S NOTES UPON SHAKSPEARE.
* KING HENRY VIII. —“Nicholas Hopkins,”
Henton which stood in the place of Hopkins (from confounding the name of the convent with that of the monk) is, says Mr. Steevens, a mistake, that must have been Shakspeare's; as it would be doing too much honour to the players, to suppose them capable of being the authors of it.
The honour of being capable of making such a mistake, the players, I suppose, would have been as little disposed to covet, as would Shakspeare himself to deprecate the disgrace of it; the truthis, there is little of disgrace, and still less of honour, belonging at all to the question; but if the honour, thus magnified, be the praise due to knowledge, howsoever misapplied, many of the players were as much above Shakspeare in accurate knowledge and systematic acquirements, as Shakspeare himself is superior, in genius, to the most elaborate of his commentators.
L. L 2.
“I am the shadow of poor Buckingham, “Whose figure, even this instant cloud puts on, “By dark'ning my clear sun.” I am but Buckingham's shadow; and my substance is become only a mark or emblem to distinguish and characterise the cloud of disgrace that overwhelms me. If this be not satisfactory, I must leave the sense to be explained by some one more discerning and perspicuous, than myself, and more lucky than any of the ingenious commentators heretofore. “That for your highness’ good I ever labour'd, “More than my own; that am, have and will be, “Tho' all the world shou'd crack their duty to you, “And throw it from their soul, tho’ perils,” &c. There is here a palpable omission that leaves the sense perplexed and imperfect. Some arrangement like this is necessary: “That for your highness good I ever labor'd “More than my own; that I am, have been, and shall be, “(Tho' all the world should crack their duty to you, “And throw it from their soul) most firm and loyal, “Tho' perils,” &c.
“He was never, “But where he meant to ruin, pitiful.” He never exhibited compassion but where his secret design was cruelty. Junius seems to have made use of this thought, when, speaking of an instance of apparent candour in Lord Mansfield, he remarks, “That cunning Scotchman never speaks truth but with a fraudulent design,"—and Otway, in the Orphan, “'Tis thus the false Hyena makes her moan, “And all who pity you are made your prey.” ——“This cardinal “Was fashioned to much honour: from his cradle “He was a scholar,” &c. I am surprised to find Theobald's clear punctuation rejected by the last editor. “Was fashion'd to much honour from his cradle.” There is no violence (at least poetic precedent fully warrants it) in saying a man was formed by nature for greatness—that he was ennobled by nature at his birth; but to say that any one was born a scholar, and a ripe scholar, cannot be reconciled to anything like truth or propriety of expression.