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sions. Tragedy, through all its several successive stages of improvement, was serious and even solemin. And a gay or rather buffoon spirit was the characteristic of comedy.
We see, then, the genius of these two poems was accidentally fixed in agreement to their respective originals; consequent writers contenting themselves to embellish and perfect, not change, the primary form. The practice of the ancient stage is then of no further authority, than as it accords to just criticism,
The solemn cast of their tragedy, indeed, bears the test, and is found to be suitable to its real nature. The same does not appear of the burlesque form of comedy; no reason having been given, why it must, of necessity, have the ridiculous for its object. Nay the effects of improved criticism on the later Greek comedy give a presumption of the direct contrary. For, in proportion to the gradual refinement of this species in the hands of its
the same in both, what is said of the one is equally applicable to the other. It was proper to observe this, or the reader might, perhaps, object to the use made of this passage, here, as well as above, where it is brought to illus. trate Aristotle's notion of the natures of the tragic and comic poetry.
greatest masters, the buffoon cast of the comic drama was insensibly dropt and even grew into a severity, which departed at length very widely from the original idea. The admirable scholar of THEOPHRASTUS, who had been tutored in the exact study of human life, saw sợ much of the genuine character of true comedy, that he cleansed it, at once, from the greater part of those buffoonries, which had, till his time, defiled its nature. His great imitator, Terence, went still further; and, whether impelled by his native humour, or determined by his truer taste, mixed so little of the ridiculous in his comedy, as plainly shews, it might, in bis opinion, subsist entirely without it. His practice indeed, and the theory, here delivered, nearly meet. And the conclusion is, that comedy, which is the image of private life, may take either character of pleasant or serious, as it chances, or even unite them into one piece; but that the former is, by no means, more essential to its constitution, than the latter.
I foresee but one objection, that can be made to this theory; which has, in effect, been obviated already. “ It may be said, that, “ if this account of comedy be just, it would “ follow, that it might, with equal propriety, « admit the gravest and most affecting events, * which inferior life furnishes, as the lightest. “ Whereas it is notorious, that distresses of a “ deep and solemn nature, though faithfully 5 copied from the fortunes of private men, 66 would never be endured, under the name of “ comedy, on the stage. Nay, such repre“ sentations would rather pass, in the public “ judgment, for legitimate tragedies; of which s kind, we have, indeed, some examples in “ our language.”
Two things are mistaken in this objection. First, it supposes, that deep distresses of every kind are inconsistent with comedy ; the contrary of which may be learnt from the SELF-TORMENTOR of Terence. Next, it insinuateş, that, if deep distresses of any kind may be admitted into comedy, the deepest may. Which is equally erroneous. For the manners being the proper object of comedy, the distress must not exceed a certain degree of severity, lest it draw off the mind from them, and confine it to the action only: as would be the case of murder, adultery, and other atrocious crimes, infesting private, as well as public, life, were they to be represented, in all their horrors, on the stage. And though some of these, as adultery, have been brought, of late, into the comic scene, yet it was not till it had lost the atrocity of its nature, and was made the subject of mirtli and pleasantry to the fashionable world. But for this happy disposition of the times, comedy, as managed by some of our writers, had lost its nature, and become tragic. And, yet, considered as tragic, such representations of low life had been improper. Because, where the intent is to affect, the subject is with more advantage taken from high life, all the circumstances being, there, more peculiarly adapted to answer that 'end.
The solution then of the difficulty is, in one word, this. All distresses are not improper in comedy ; but such only as attach the mind to the fable, in neglect of the manners, which åre its chief object. On the other hand, all distresses are not proper in tragedy ; but such only as are of force to interest the mind in the action, preferably to the observation of the manners ; which can only be done, or is done most effectually, when the distressful event, represented, is taken from public life. So that the distresses, spoken of, are equally unsuited to what the natures both of comedy and tragedy, respectively, demand.
OF M. DE FONTENELLE'S NOTION OF
· NOTWITHSTANDING the pains I have taken, in the preceding chapters, to establish my theory of the comic drama, I find myself obliged to support it still further against the authority of a very eminent modern critic. M. de Fontenelle hath just now published two volumes of plays, among which are some comedies of a very singular character. They are not only, in a high degree, pathetic; but the scene of them is laid in antiquity ; and great personages, such as Kings, Princesses, &c. are of the drama. He hath besides endeavoured to justify this extraordinary species of comedy by a very ingenious preface. It will therefore be necessary for me to examine this new system, and to obviate, as far as I can, the prejudices which the name of the author, and the intrinsic merit of the plays themselves, will occasion in favour of it.. .
· His system, as explained in the preface to these comedies, is, briefly, this.