and the characters to go to bed and get up again just so many times. But the clever poet thrusts into the background all the intervals which are connected with no perceptible progress in the action, and in his picture annihilates all the pauses of absolute stand-still, and contrives, though with a rapid touch, to convey an accurate idea of the period supposed to have elapsed. But why is the privilege of adopting a much wider space between the two extremes of the piece than the material time of the representation important to the dramatist, and even indispensable to him in many subjects? The example of a conspiracy given by Voltaire comes in here very opportunely.

A conspiracy plotted and executed in two hours is, in the first place, an incredible thing. Moreover, with reference to the characters of the personages of the piece, such a plot is very

different from one in which the conceived purpose, however dangerous, is silently persevered in by all the parties for a considerable time. Though the poet does not admit this lapse of time into his exhibition immediately, in the midst of the characters, as in a mirror, he gives us as it were a perspective view of it. In this sort of perspective Shakspeare is the greatest master I know: a single word frequently opens to view an almost interminable vista of antecedent states of mind. Confined within the narrow limits of time, the poet is in many subjects obliged to mutilate the action, by beginning close to the last decisive stroke, or else he is under the necessity of unsuitably hurryiug on its progress: on either supposition he must reduce within petty dimensions the grand picture of a strong purpose, which is no momentary ebullition, but a firm resolve undauntedly maintained in the midst of all external vicissitudes, till the time is ripe for its execution. It is no longer what Shakspeare has so often painted, and what he has described in the following lines :


Between the acting of a dreadful thing,
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream :
The genius, and the mortal instruments,

then in council; and the state of man, Like to a little kingdom, suffers then The nature of an insurrection.




But wliy are the Greek and romantic poets so different in their practice with respect to place and time? The spirit of our criticism will not allow us to follow the practice of many critics, who so summarily pronounce the latter to be barbarians. On the contrary, we conceive that they lived in very cultivated times, and were themselves highly cultivated

As to the ancients, besides the structure of their stage, which, as we have already said, led naturally to the seeming continuity of time and to the absence of change of scene, their observance of this practice was also favoured by the nature of the materials on which the Grecian dramatist had to work. These materials were mythology, and, consequently, a fiction, which, under the handling of preceding poets, had collected into continuous and perspicuous masses, what in reality was detached and scattered about in various ways. Moreover, the heroic age which they painted was at once extremely simple in its manners, and marvellous in its incidents; and hence everything of itself went straight to the mark of a tragic resolution.

But the principal cause of the difference lies in the plastic spirit of the antique, and the picturesque spirit of the romantic poetry. Sculpture directs our attention exclusively to the group which it sets before us, it divests it as far as possible from all external accompaniments, and where they cannot be dispensed with, it indicates them as slightly as possible. Painting, on the other hand, delights in exhibiting, along with the principal figures, all the details of the surrounding locality and all secondary circumstances, and to open a prospect into a boundless distance in the background; and light and shade with perspective are its peculiar charms. Hence the Dramatic, and especially the Tragic Art, of the ancients, annihilates in some measure the external circumstances of space and time; while, by their changes, the romantic drama adorns its more varied pictures. Or, to express myself in other terms, the principle of the antique poetry is ideal; that of the romantic is mystical: the former subjects space and time to the internal free-agency of the mind; the latter honours these incomprehensible essences as supernatural powers, in which there is somewhat of indwelling divinity




Mischief resulting to the French Stage from too narrow Interpretation of

the Rules of Unity-Influence of these rules on French Tragedy-
Manner of treating Mythological and Historical Materials--Idea of
Tragical Dignity-Observation of Conventional Rules--False System of

I COME now to the influence which the above rules of
Unity, strictly interpreted and received as inviolable, have,
with other conventional rules, exercised on the shape of
French tragedy.

With the stage of a wholly different structure, with materials for the most part dissimilar, and handled in an opposite spirit, they were still desirous of retaining the rules of the ancient Tragedy, so far as they are to be learnt froun Aristotle.

They prescribed the same simplicity of action as the Grecian Tragedy observed, and yet rejected the lyrical part, which is a protracted development of the present moment, and consequently a stand-still of the action. This part could not, it is true, be retained, since we no longer possess the ancient music, which was subservient to the poetry, instead of overbearing it as ours does. If we deduct from the Griek Tragedies the choral odes, and the lyrical pieces which are occasionally put into the mouths of individuals, they will be found nearly one-half shorter than an ordinary French tragedy. Voltaire, in his prefaces, frequently complains of the great difficulty in procuring materials for five long acts. have the gaps arising from the omission of the lyrical parts been filled up? By intrigue. While with the Greeks the action, measured by a few great moments, rolls on uninterrupt. edly to its issue, the French have introduced many secondary characters almost exclusively with the view that their opposite purposes may

rise to a multitude of impeding incidents

, to keep up our attention, or rather our curiosity, to the close. There was now an end therefore of everything like simplicity; still they flattered themselves that they had,

[ocr errors]

How now

[ocr errors]



by means of an artificial coherence, preserved at least a unity for the understanding.

Intrigue is not, in itself, a Tragical motive; to Comedy, it is essential, as we have already shown. Comedy, even at its close, must often be satisfied with mere suppositions for the understanding; but this is by no means the poetic side of this demi-prosaic species of the Drama. Although the French Tragedy endeavours in the details of execution to rise by earnestness, dignity, and pathos, as high as possible above Comedy, in its general structure and composition, it still bears, in my opinion, but too close an affinity to it. In many French tragedies I find indeed a Unity for the Understanding, but the Feeling is left unsatisfied. Out of a complication of painful and violent situations we do, it is true, arrive at last, happily or unhappily, at a state of repose; but in the represented course of affairs there is no secret and mysterious revelation of a higher order of things; there is no allusion to any consolatory thoughts of heaven, whether in the dignity of human nature successfully maintained in its conflicts with fate, or in the guidance of an over-ruling providence. To such a tranquillizing feeling the so-called poetical justice is partly unnecessary, and partly also, so very questionably and obliquely is it usually administered, very insufficient. But even poetical justice (which I cannot help considering as a inade-up example of a doctrine false in itself, and ono, moreover, which by no means tends to the excitation of truly moral feelings) has not unfrequently been altogether neglected by the French tragedians.

The use of intrigue is certainly well calculated to effect the all-desired short duration of an important action. For the intriguer is ever expeditious, and loses no time in attaining to his object. But the mighty course of human destinies proceeds, like the change of seasons, with measured pace: great designs ripen slowly; stealthily and hesitatingly the dark suggestions of deadly malice quit the abysses of the mind for the light of day; and, as Horace, with equal truth and beauty observes, "the ilying criminal is only limpingly followed by penal retribution* Let only the attempt be made, for in

Rarò antecedentem scelestum
Deseruit pede pæna claudo.


ITS TRAGICAL EXHIBITION—THE COMET'S COURSE. 255 stance, to bring within the narrow frame of the Unity of Time Shakspeare's gigantic picture of Macbeth's murder of Duncan, his tyrannical usurpation and final fall; let as many as may be of tlie events which the great dramatist successively exhibits before us in such dread array be placed anterior to the opening of the piece, and made the subject of an after recital, and it will be seen how thereby the story loses all its sublime significance. This drama does, it is true, embrace a considerable period of time: but does its rapid progress leave us leisure to calculate this? We see, as it were, the Fates weaving their dark web on the whistling loom of time; and we are drawn irresistibly on by the storm and whirlwind of events, which hurries on the hero to the first atrocious deed, and from it to innumerable crimes to secure its fruits with Auctuating fortunes and perils, to his final fall on the field of battle. Such a tragic exhibition resembles a comet's course, which, bardly visible at first, and revealing itself only to the astronomic eye, appears at a nebulous distance in the heavens, but soon soars with unheard-of and accelerating rapidity towards the central point of our system, scattering dismay among the nations of the earth. till, in a moment, when least expected, with its portentous tail it overspreads the half of the firmament with resplendent flame.

For the sake of the prescribed Unity of Time the French poets must fain renounce all those artistic effects which proceed from the gradually accelerated growth of any object in the mind, or in the external world, through the march of time, while of all that in a drama is calculated to fascinate the eye they were through their wretched arrangement of stage-scenery deprived in a great measure by the Unity of Place. Accidental circumstances might in truth enforce a closer observance of this rule, or even render it indispensable. From a remark of Corneille's* we are led to conjecture that stage-machinery in France was in his time extremely clumsy and imperfect. It was moreover the general custoin for a number of distinguished spectators to have seats on both sides of the stage itself, which hardly left a breadth

a * In his Premier Discours sur la Poesie Dramatique he says: chanson a quelquefois bonne grace; et dans les pièces de machines cet ornement est redevenu necessaire pour reinpir les oreilles du spectateur, pendant que les machines descendent,"

« Une

« VorigeDoorgaan »