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THE ENGLISH COMIC WRITERS.

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ironical humorist than a mimical buffoon. Intrigue in real life is foreign to the Northern nations, both from the virtues and the defects of their character; they have too much openness of disposition, and too little acuteness and nicety of understanding. It is remarkable that, with greater violence of passion, the Southern nations possess, nevertheless, in a much higher degree the talent of dissembling. In the North, life is wholly founded on mutual confidence. Hence, in the drama, the spectators, from being less practised in intrigue, are less inclined to be delighted with concealment of views and their success by bold artifice, and with the presence of mind which, in unexpected events of an untoward nature, readily extricates its possessor from embarrassment. However, there may be an intrigue in Comedy, in the dramatic sense, though none of the persons carry on what is properly called intrigue. Still it is in the entangling and disentangling their plots that the English comic writers are least deserving of praise. Their plans are defective iu unity. From this reproach I have, I conceive, sufficiently exculpated Shakspeare; it is rather merited by many of Fletcher's pieces. When, indeed, the imagination has a share in the composition, then it is far from being as necessary that all should be accurately connected together by cause and effect, as when the whole is framed and held together exclusively by the understanding. The existence of a double or even triple intrigue in many modern English comedies has been acknowledged even by English critics themselves. The inventions to which they have recourse are often everything but probable, without charming us by their happy novelty; they are chiefly deficient, however, in perspicuity and easy development. Most English comedies are much too long. The authors overload their composition with characters: and we can see no reason why they should not have divided them into several pieces. It is as if we were to compel to travel in the same stage-coach a greater number of persons, all strangers to each other. than there is properly room for; the journey becomes were inconvenient, and the entertainment not a whit more lively

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Among others, by the anonymous author of a clever letter to Garrick, prefixed to Coxeter's edition of Massinger's Ti'orks, who says~" What with their plots, and double plots, and counter-plots, and under-plots, the mind is as much perplexed to piece out the story as to put together the disjointed parts of an ancient drame.,'

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THE ENGLISH COMIC WRITERS.

The great merit of the English comic poets of this perio. consists in the delineation of character; yet though many have certainly shown much talent, I cannot ascribe to any a peculiar genius for characterization. Even in this department the older poets (not only Shakspeare, for that may easily be supposed, but even Fletcher and Jonson) are superior to them. The moderns seldom possess the faculty of seizing the most hidden and involuntary emotions, and giving a comic expres. sion to them; they generally draw merely the natural or assumed surface of men. Moreover, the same circumstance which in France, after Molière's time, was attended with such prejudicial effects, came here also into play. The comic muse, instead of becoming familiar with life in the middle and lower ranks (her proper sphere), assumed an air of distinction: she squeezed herself into courts, and endeavoured to snatch a resemblance of the beau monde. It was now no longer an English national, but a London comedy. The whole turns almost exclusively on fashionable love-suits and fashionable raillery; the love-affairs are either disgusting or insipid, and the raillery is always puerile and destitute of wit. These comic writers may have accurately hit the tone of their time; in this they did their duty; but they have reared a lamentable memorial of their age. In few periods has taste in the fine arts been at such a low ebb as about the close of the seventeenth and during the first half of the eighteenth century. The political machine kept its course; wars, negotiations, and changes of states, give to this age a certain historical splendour; but the comic poets and portrait-painters have revealed to us the secret of its pitifulness—the former in their copies of the dresses, and the latter in the imitation of the social tone. I am convinced that if we could now listen to the conversation of the beau monde of that day, it would appear to us as pettily affected and full of tasteless pretension, as the hoops, the towering head-dresses and high-heeled shoes of the women, and the huge perukes, cravats, wide sleeves, and ribbon-knots of the men*.

* When I make good or bad taste in dress an infallible criterion of social elegance or deformity, this must be limited to the age in which the fashion came up; for it may sometimes be very difficult to overturn a wretched fashion even when, in other things, a better taste has long prevailed. The dregses of the ancients were more simple, and consequently less subject to charge of fashion; and the male dress, in particular, was almost unchangeable. However, even from the dresses alone, as we see them in the remains of antiquity, we may form a pretty accurate judgment of the character of the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. In the female portrait-busts of the time of the later Roman emperors, we often find the head-dresses extremely tasteless; nay, even busts with peruques which may be taken off, probably for the purpose of changing them, as the originals themselves did.

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The last, and not the least defect of the English comedies is their offensiveness. I may sum up the whole in one word by saying, that after all we know of the licentiousness of manners under Charles II., we are still lost in astonishment at the audacious ribaldry, of Wycherley and Congreve. Decency is not merely violated in the grossest manner in single speeches, and frequently in the whole plot; but in the character of the rake, the fashionable debauchee, a moral scepticism is directly preached up, and marriage is the constant subject of their ridicule. Beaumont and Fletcher portrayed an irregular but vigorous nature : nothing, however, can be more repulsive than rude depravity coupled with claims to higher refinement. Under Queen Anne manners became again more decorous; and this may easily be traced in the comedies: in the series of English comic poets, Wycherley, Congreve, Farquhar, Vanbrugh, Steelo, Cibber, &c., we may perceive something like a gradation from the most unblushing indecency to a tolerable degree of modesty. However, the example of the predecessors has had more than a due influence on the successors. From prescriptive fame pieces keep possession of the stage such as no man in the present day durst venture to bring out. It is a remarkable phenomenon, the causes of which are deserving of inquiry, that the English nation, in the last half of the eighteenth century, passed all at once from the most opposite way of thinking, to an almost over-scrupulous strictness of manners in social conversation, in romances and plays, and in the plastic arts.

Some writers have said of Congreve that he had too much wit for a coinic poet. These people must have rather a strange notion of wit. The truth is, that Congrere and the other writers above mentioned possess in general much less comic than epigrammatic wit. The latter often degenerates into a laborious straining for wit. Steele's dialogue, for ex

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ample, puts us too much in mind of the letters in the Spectator. Farquhar's plots seem to me to be the most ingenious of all.

The latest period of English Comedy begins nearly with Colman. Since that time the morals have been irreproachable, and much has been done in the way of refined and original characterization ; the form, however, has on the whole remained the same, and in that respect I do not think the English comedies at all models.

Tragedy has been often attempted in England in the eighteenth century, but a genius of the first rank has never made his appearance. They laid aside the manner of Dryden, however, and that at least was an improvement. Rowe was an honest admirer of Shakspeare, and his modest reverence for this superior genius was rewarded by a return to nature and truth. The traces of imitation are not to be mistaken: the part of Gloster in Jane Shore is even directly borrowed from Richard the Third Rowe did not possess boldness and vigour, but was not without sweetness and feeling; he could excite the softer emotions, and hence in his Fair Penitent, Jane Shore, and Lady Jane Gray, he has successfully chosen female heroines and their weaknesses for his subjects.

Addison possessed an elegant inind, but he was by no means a poet. He undertook to purify the English Tragedy, by bringing it into a compliance with the supposed rules of good taste. We might have expected from a judge of the ancients, that he would have endeavoured to approach the Greek models. Whether he had any such intention I know not, but certain it is that he has produced nothing but a tragedy after the French model. Cato is a feeble and frigid piece, almost destitute of action, without one truly overpowering moment. Addison has so narrowed a great and heroic picture by his timid manner of treating it, that he could not, without foreign intermixture, even fill up the frame. Hence, he had recourse to the traditional love intrigues; if we count well, we shall find in this piece no fewer than six persons in love: Cato's two sons, Marcia and Lucia, Juba and Sempronius. The good Cato cannot, therefore, as a provident father of a family, avoid arranging two marriages at the close. With the exception of Sempronius, the villain of the piece, the lovers are one and all somewhat silly. Cato, who ought to be the soul of the whole, is hardly ever shown to us in action; nothing remains for him but to admire himself and to die. It might

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be thought that the stoical determination of suicide, without struggle and without passion, is not a fortunate subject; but correctly speaking, no subjects are unfortunate, every thing depends on correctly apprehending them. Addison has been induced, by a wretched regard to Unity of Place, to leave out Cæsar, the only worthy contrast to Cato; and, in this respect even Metastasio has managed matters better. The language is pure and simple, but without vigour; the rhymeless lambic gives more freedom to the dialogue, and an air somewhat less conventional than it has in the French tragedies; but in vigorous eloquence, Cato remains far behind them.

Addison took his measures well; he placed all the great and small critics, with Pope at their head, the whole militia of good taste under arms, that he might excite a high expectation of the piece which he had produced with so much labour. Cato was universally praised, as a work without an equal. And on what foundation do these boundless praises rest? On regularity of form? This had been already observed by the French poets for nearly a century, and notwithstanding its constraints they had often attained a much stronger pathetic effect. Or on the political sentiments! But in a single dialogue between Brutus and Cassius in Shakspeare there is more of a Roman way of thinking and republican energy than in all Cato.

I doubt whether this piece could ever have produced a powerful impression, but its reputation has certainly had a prejudicial influence on Tragedy in England. The example of Cato, and the translation of French tragedies, which became every day more frequent, could not, it is true, render universal the belief in the infallibility of the rules; but they were held in sufficient consideration to disturb the conscience of the dramatic poets, who consequently were extremely timid in availing themselves of the prerogatives they inherited from Shakspeare. On the other hand, these prerogatives were at the same time problems; it requires no ordinary degree of skill to arrange, with simplicity and perspicuity, such great masses as Shakspeare uses to bring together: more of drawing and perspective are required for an extensive fresco painting, than for a small oil picture. In renouncing the intermixture of comic scenes when they no longer understood their ironical aim, they did perfectly right: Southern still attempted them in his Oroonoko, but in his hands they exhibit a wretched

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