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Ir is peculiarly pleasing to trace the history of every science through its progressive changes. The examination of each distinct epoch, and of every individual amendment, tends to gratify the curiosity; while a comparison of the first rude attempts with the grandeur of modern improvements cannot fail to awaken emulation, and inspirit all our efforts, in the career of literary advancement. These observations will be found to apply, with peculiar justice, to the Dramatic Art. For, on perusing the finished productions of the modern drama, we can scarcely believe, that this splendid style of composition owes its origin to the wild and uncouth ballads of strolling singers in Greece, who met at certain seasons of the year, to celebrate the festival of Bacchus. Yet no fact is better authenticated in history, than that Tragedy derives its existence from the choral songs in honour of that god.
The Chorus, as these singers were afterwards called, whether composed of itinerant rhapsodists, or appropriate minstrels, confined their effusions, in the first instance, to the praise of the deity, whom they met to celebrate; and, as the entertainment was yet entirely musical, the festival consisted of an uninterrupted flow of song, till the 536th year before the Christian æra, when Thespis conceived the design of introducing an actor, to amuse the people by recitation, while the chorus enjoyed a few moments of repose. This bold innovation was followed by others, still more daring, which led to unforeseen and incalculable improvements. Eschylus introduced a second actor, whó
conversed with the first, and thus laid the foundation of dramatic dialogue. But, as the dramatis personæ increased, the subject of their discourse also gradually underwent a change. At first, the praise of other heroes was interwoven with that of Bacchus. As the dialogue became more extensive, it became more interesting; till, at length, the chorus, from a principal, began to be considered as a subordinate part; and Bacchus, from being the hero of every line, lost, by degrees, his ascendancy in the entertainment, till, at length, he was altogether set aside; and subjects of general history, dramatically disposed, now entirely supplied the place of bare dithyrambics. These important changes, begun by Thespis, were improved and confirmed by Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the illustrious dramatic triumvirate of Greece, who were justly the favourites of their own times, and whose works have been handed down to posterity with the accumulated admiration of each succeeding age.
Notwithstanding, however, the fame which the works of these illustrious tragedians so justly enjoy, an accurate inquiry into the laws of the Grecian drama, will prove it to have been marred by a singular defect, from which the more judicious compositions of modern times are happily exempt. We have already observed, that, as the dialogue of the drama improved and extended itself, the chorus, which had given birth to it, sunk in importance, and, at last, became altogether unnecessary. Yet Tragedy, in the full maturity of its ancient splendour, as if afraid of giving the parricidal blow, never ventured to cut off the chorus, though it had now become a useless and embarrassing appendage of the stage, no less an enemy to verisimilitude, than a bar to scenic variety. For, as the persons, who composed it, never quitted the stage, they were the auditors and spectators of all that passed, the necessary confidants of all parties; by which means probability was violated, and the common characteristics of human nature confounded and lost. What, indeed, can be more incredible, than that Phodra should trust her incestuous passion, or Medea her murderous revenge, to an undistinguished troop of attendants? In addition to this, the constant presence of the choral band imposed on the dra matist the necessity of preserving the unities of time and place. The scene could not be changed, when the stage was never clear; nor the time of action prolonged beyond that of the representation. Accordingly, we find (with a few exceptions) that, in the Greek tragedy, the place is never varied, the action never suspended, and the dramatic time exactly commensurate with the time
of performance. Such inconveniences may, in some measure, be surmounted by the first masters; but, in other hands, must necessarily have the effect of rendering the piece barren of incident, languid, and uninteresting. It is then to the taste and genius of later times, that we are indebted for the more finished productions of the Tragic Muse. As the first grand and necessary step in improvement, the modern dramatist disbanded the chorus, and thus released himself from the shackles of ancient thraldom. He is no longer obliged to make a court-yard, or the street, or the sea-shore, serve for the same dull scene through the whole performance. He is no longer forced to measure his time by the hour-glass: for, as the falling curtain, at stated intervals, suspends the action, and clears the stage, the imagination of the audience is, as it were, in the hands of the poet, and the lapse of minutes can easily be fancied the flight of hours. Thus, then, the tragic writer of our days, though he still observe the unity of action, as necessary to just delineation of character, and progressive developement of plot, has seized on a greater latitude of time and place, by which he is enabled to throw more variety of scene, intrigue, incident, and action, into his piece. The examination of any modern tragedy will illustrate the truth of these assertions. In Gustavus Vasa, for instance, the action first lies in the copper-mines, then in the mountains of Dalecarlia; now in the camp, now in its precincts. And in Philaster, if we include the various apartments of the palace, the scene changes no less than twelve times. It is by this single power over place, that the modern dramatist is enabled so to involve his argument and aggregate events, as to arrest attention by multiplicity of incident, interest by perplexity of plot, and surprize by unexpected catastrophe. To employ such extensive materials, and include such variety of occurrence, in one scene, would be impossible and all the interest of an English tragedy, nay, the tragedy itself, would be annihilated in an attempt to adjust it to the ancient model.
Besides the advantages already enumerated, we possess, in the passion of love, a rich and invaluable mine of dramatic gold, so little explored by the ancients, that that tender sentiment does not form the foundation-plot of more than one of the Greek tragedies. And this will appear the less surprising, when we contemplate the amazing distance, at which women were kept in those primæval times; and recollect, that female performers were not allowed on the stage. Happily for us, juster notions of human nature, and purer feelings of generous attachment, have so interwoven and blended us in one com
mon interest with the fair sex, that their pleasures and pains are ours, nay, rise pre-eminent over those of man, and never fail to excite a more lively sympathy. Accordingly, though overlooked by the ancients, to what interesting scenes does the passion of love give birth in the hands of a Southern, a Congreve, and an Otway? Is it possible to view the romantic feelings of Isabella, without sentiments of admiration and sympathetic sorrow? Where shall we find, in tragedy, a scene more truly affecting, than the tenderness and distress of Castalio, in the fine interview with Monimia, in the fifth act of the Orphan? Can any thing be imagined so exquisite, as the picture of conjugal affection, and persisting fidelity, in the characters of Almeria and Belvidera ?
Having thus vindicated the superior excellencies of the modern drama against the boasted claims of Greece, it would be agreeable to the tenor of the editor's plan, and the objects he has in view, to shew, that Britain possesses as decided a pre-eminence, in this branch of literature, over contemporary nations, as she does over remote antiquity. An examination into the state of the various theatres of Europe would incontestably prove the truth of this remark. But, as our right to the dramatic palm has never been disputed, such an inquiry seems unnecessary. It remains, therefore, to explain the motives, which led the editor to the present undertaking.
Impressed with the highest admiration of our Tragic Muse, the editor conceived, that a collection of her best works would be highly acceptable to the public, on account of the difficulty, that at present exists, of procuring the favourite productions of the stage in a convenient form. For many of our best tragedies are not to be obtained, except in a detached state, and others are only to be found in a complete edition of the works of the respective author. So that, a lover of the drama is reduced to the necessity, either of scattering his room with heaps of pamphlets, or loading his shelves with numerous volumes, of which the dramatic contents bear but a small proportion to the bulk of foreign matter. It is the purpose of publications like the present to obviate these inconveniences. But his predecessors, in this humble walk of literature, have given to the world miscellanies, rather than selections: they have frequently jumbled together, in the same volume, Tragedy, Comedy, and Farce, without attention either to choice or arrangement. They have preferred without taste, and distributed without judgment. So that, in such volumes, it is no uncommon thing to see the " Lying Valet" precede "Cato," and the "Roman Father" following "Miss in her Teens."