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shewing themselves, at least with that distinctness and relief which we look for in dramatic characters. Inferior personages, acting with less reserve and caution, afford the fittest occasion to the poet of expressing their genuine tempers and dispositions. Or, if a picture of the manners be expected from the introduction of great persons, it can be only in tragedy, where the importance of the interests and the strong play of the passions strip them of their borrowed disguises, and lay open their true characters. So that the princely, or heroic, comedy is the least fitted, of any kind of drama, to furnish this pleasure.
The ancients appear to have had no doubt at all on the matter. The tragedy on low life, and comedy on high life, were refinements altogether unknown to them. What then hath occasioned this revolution of taste amongst us? Principally, I conceive, these three things.
1. The comedy on high life hath arisen from a different state of government. In the free towns of Greece there was no room for that distinction of high and low comedy, which the moderns have introduced. And the reason was, the members of those communities were so nearly on a level, that any one was a representative of the rest. There was no standing subordination of royalty, nobility, and commonalty, as with us. Their way of ennobling their characters was, by making them Generals, Ambassadors, Magistrates, &c. and then, in that public view, they were fit personages for tragedy. When stripped of these ensigns of
Amongst us, persons of elevated rank make a separate order in the community, whose private lives however might, no doubt, be the subject of comic representation. Why then are not these fit personages for comedy? The reason has been given. They want dramatic manners. Or, if they did not, their elevated and separate estate makes the generality conceive with such reverence of them, that it would shock their notions of high life to see them employed in a course of comic adventures. And of this M. de Fontenelle himself was sufficiently sensible. For, speaking in another place of the importance which the tragic action receives from the dignity of its persons, he says, “ When the actions are of “ such a kind as that, without losing any $thing of their beauty, they might pass be“tween inferior persons, the names of kings as and princes are nothing but a foreign orna
6 ment, which the poet gives to his subject. “ Yet this ornament, foreign as it may be, is « necessary: so fated are we to be always
dazzled by titles. Should he not have seen then, that this pageantry of titles, which is so requisite to raise the dignity of the tragic drama, must for the same reason prevent the familiarity of the comic? The great themselves are, no doubt, in this, as other instances, above, vulgar prejudices. But the dramatic poet writes for the people.
2. The tragedy on low life, I suspect, has, been chiefly owing to our modern romances : which have brought the tender passion into great repute. It is the constant and almost sole object of le pitoyable and le tendre in our, drama. Now the prevalency of this passion in all degrees hath made it thought an indifferent matter, whether the story, that exemplifies it, be taken from low or high life. As it rages equally in both, the pathos, it was believed, would be just the same. And it is true, if tragedy confine itself to the display of this passion, the difference will be less sensible, than in other instances. Because the concern terminates more directly in the tender pair
• Reflex. sur la Poes. p. 132.
themselves, and does not so necessarily extend itself to others. Yet to heighten this same pathos by the grand and important, would methinks be the means of affording a still higher pleasure.
3. After all, that effusion of softness which prevails to such a degree in all our dramas, comic as well as tragic, to the exclusion of every other interest, is, perhaps, best accounted for by this writer. As the matter is delicate, I chuse to give it in his own words: “On s'ima“gine naturellement, que les piéces Grecques “ & les nôtres ont été jugées au même tribunal, s à celui d'un public. assés egal dans les deux “ nations; mais cela n'est pas tout-a-fait vrai. “ Dans le tribunal d'Athenes, les femmes “ n'avoient pas de voix, ou n'en avoient que § très peu. Dans le tribunal de Paris, c'est “ précisément le contraire; ici il est donc “ question de plaire aux femmes, qui assuré"ment aimeront mieux le pitoyable & le ten- , 5 dre, que terrible et même le grand." He adds, “ Et je ne crois pas au fond qu'elles " ayent grand tort.” And what gallant man but would subscribe to this opinion?
On the whole, this attempt of M. de Fontenelle, to innovate in the province of comedy,
puts one in mind of that he made, many years ago, in pastoral poetry. It is exactly the same spirit which has governed this polite writer in both adventures. He was once for bringing courtiers in masquerade into Arcadia. And now he would set them unmasked on the comic stage. Here, at least, he thought they would be in place. But the simplicity of pastoral dialogue would not suffer the one; and the familiarity of comic action forbids the other. It must be confessed, however, he hath succeeded better in the example of his comedies, than his pastorals. And no wonder. For what we call the fashions and manners are confined to certain conditions of life, so that pastoral courtiers are an evident, contradiction and absurdity. But, the appetites and passions extending through all ranks, hence low tricks and low amours are thought to suit the minister and sharper alike. However it be, the fact is, that M. de Fontenelle hath succeeded best in his comedies. And as his theory is likely to gain more credit from the success of his practice than the force of his reasoning, I think it proper to close these remarks with an observation or two upon it. .
There are, I observed, three things to be considered in his comedies, his introduction of