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I do not therefore find fault with the artifices above- mentioned when they are introduced with skill, and accompanied by proportionable sentiments and expressions in the writing.
From the moving of pity, our principal machine is the handkerchief; and indeed, in our common tragedies, we should not know very often that the persons are in distress by any thing they say, if they did not from time to time apply their handkerchiefs to their eyes. Far be it from me to think of banishing this instrument of sorrow from the stage; I knowa tragedy could not subsist without it: all that I would contend * for, is to keep it from being misapplied. In a word, I would have the actor's tungue sympathize with his
A disconsolate mother, with a child in her hand, has frequently drawn compassion from the audience, and has therefore gained a place in several tragedies. A modern writer, that observed how this had took in other plays, being resolved to double the distress, and melt his audience twice as much as those before him had done, brought a princess upon the stage with a little boy in one hand and a girl in the other. This too liad a very good effect. A third poet, being resolved to outwrite all his predecessors, a few years ago introduced three children with great success; and as I am informed, a young gentleman, who is fully determined to break the most obdurate hearts, has a tragedy by him, where the first person that appears upon the stage is an afflicted widow in her mourning weeds, with half a dozen fatherless children attending her, like those that usually hang about the figure of charity. Thus several incidents, that are beautiful in a good writer, become ridiculous by falling into the hands of a bad one.
But among all our methods of moving pity or terror, there is none so absurd and barbarous, and what
more exposes us to the contempt and ridicule of our neighbours, than that dreadful butchering of one ano, ther, which is so very frequent upon the English stage. To delight in seeing men stabbed, poisoned, racked, or impaled, is certainly the sign of a cruel temper: and as this is often practised before the British audience, several French critics, who think these are grateful spectacles to us, take occasion from them to represent us as a people that delight in blood. It is indeed very odd, to see our stage strowed with carcases in the last scene of a tragedy; and to observe in the wardrobe of the playhouse several daggers, poniards, wheels, bowls for poison, and many other instruments of death Murders and executions are always transacted behind the scenes in the French theatre, which in general is very agreeable to the manners of a polite and civilized people: but as there are no exceptions to this rule on the French stage, it leads them into absurdities almost as ridiculous as that which falls under our present censure. I remember in the famous play of Corneille, written upon the subject of the Horatii and Curiatii ; the fierce young hero who had overcome the Curiatii one after another, instead of being congratulated by his sister for his victory, being upbraided by her for having slain her lover, in the height of his passion and resentment kills her. If any thing could extenuate so brutal an action, it would be the doing of it on a sudden, before the sentiments of nature, reason, or manhood, could take place in him. However, to avoid public bloodshec, as soon as his passion is wrought to its height, he follows his sister the whole length of the stage, and forbears killing her till they are both withdrawn behind the scenes. I must confess, had he murdered her before the audience, the indecency might have been greater; but as it is, it appears very unnatural, and looks like killing in cold blood. To give my opinion
upon this case, the fact ought not to have been represented, but to have been told, if there was any occasion for it.
It may not be unacceptable to the reader to see how Sophocles has conducted tragedy under the like delicate circumstances. Orestes was in the same condition with Hamlet in Shakspeare, his mother having murdered his father, and taken possession of his kingdom in conspiracy with the adulterer. The young prince therefore, being determined to revenge his father's death upon those who filled his throne, conveys himself by a beautiful stratagem into his mother's apartment, with a resolution to kill her. But because such a spectacle would have been too shocking for the audience, this dreadful resolution is executed behind the scenes: the mother is heard calling out to her son for mercy; and her son answering her, that she shewed no mercy to his father; after which she shrieks out that she is wounded; and by what follows we find that she is slain. I do not remember that in any of our plays there are speeches made behind the scenes, though there are other instances of this nature to be met with in those of the ancients: and I believe my reader will agree with me, that there is something infinitely more affecting in this dreadful dialogue between the mother and her son behind the scenes, than could have been in any thing transacted before the audience. Orestes immediately after meets the usurper at the entrance of his palace; and by a very happy thought of the poet avoids killing him before the audience, by telling him that he should live some time in his present bitterness of soul before he would dispatch him, and by ordering him to retire into that part of the palace where he had slain his father, whose murder he would revenge in the very same place where it was committed. By this means the poet observes that decency which Horace afterwards esta
blished by a rule, of forbearing to commit parricides · or unnatural murders before the audience.
"Nec coram populo natos Medea trucidet.
Let not Medea draw her murd'ring knife,
RoscoMMON. The French have therefore refined too much upon Horace's rule, who never designed to banish all kinds of death from the stage; but only such as had too much horror in them, and which would have a better effect upon the audience when transacted behind the scenes. I would therefore recommend to my countrymen the practice of the ancient poets, who were sparing of their public executions, and rather chose to perform them behind the scenes, if it could be done with as great an effect upon the audience. At the same time I must observe that though the devoted persons of the tragedy, were seldom slain before the audience, which has generally something ridiculous in it, their bodies were often produced after their death, which has always in it something melancholy or terrifying; so that the killing on the stage does not seem to have been avoided only as an indecency, but also as an improbability.
Nec pueros coram populo Medea trucidet;
Medea must not draw her murdring knife,
I have now gone through the several dramatic inventions which are made use of by the ignorant poets to supply the place of Tragedy, and by the skilful to improve it; some of them I could wish entirely rejected, and the rest to be used with caution. It would be an endless task to consider Comedy in the same light, and to mention the innumerable shifts that small wits put in practice to raise a laugh. Bullock in a short-coat, and Norris in a long one, seldom fail of this effect. In ordinary comedies, a broad and a narrow brimmed hat are different characters. Sometimes the wit of the scene lies in a shoulderbelt, and sometimes in a pair of whiskers. A lover running about the stage, with his head peeping out of a barrel, was thought a very good jest in king Charles the Second's time; and invented by one of the first wits of that age. But because ridicule is not so delicate as compassion, and because the objects that make us laugh are infinitely more numerous than those that make us weep, there is a much greater latitude for comic than tragic artifices, and by consequence a much greater indulgence to be allowed them.