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It has been observed by others, that this poet has founded his tragedy of Venice Preserved on so wrong a plot, that the greatest characters in it are those of rebels and traitors. Had the hero of his play discovered the fame good qualities in the defence of his country, that he shewed for its ruin and subversion, the audience could not enough pity and admire him; but as he is now represented, we can only say of him what the Roman historian says of Catiline, that his fall would have been glorious (li pro Patria fic concidisei) had he so fallen in the service of his country.
No. XL. MONDAY, APRIL 16.
Ac ne fortè putes, me, quæ facere ipse recusem,
Yet lest you think I rally more than tcach,
T HE English writers of tragedy are possessed with a
notion, that when they represent a virtuous or innocent person in distress, they ought not to leave him ’till they have delivered hiin out of his troubles, or made him triumph over his enemies. This error they have been led
into by a ridiculous doctrine in modern criticism, that they are obliged to an equal distribution of rewards and punishments, and an impartial execution of poetical juftice. Who were the first that established this rule I know not; but I am sure it has no foundation in nature, in reafon, or in practice of the ancients. We find that good and evil happen alike to all men on this fide the grave; and as the principal design of tragedy is to raise commiseration and terror in the minds of the audience, we shall defeat this great end, if we always make virtue and innocence happy and successful. Whatever crosses and disappointments a good man suffers in the body of the tragedy, they will make but small impression on our minds, when we know that in the last act he is to arrive at the end of his wishes and desires. When we see him engaged in the depth of his afflictions, we are apt to comfort ourselves, because we are sure he will find his way out of them; and that his grief, how great foever it may be at present, will foon terminate in gladness. For this reason the ancicnt writers of tragedy treated men in their plays, as they are dealt with in the world, by making virtue fometimes happy and sometimes miserable, as they found it in the fable which they made choice of, or as it might affect their audience in the most agreeable
Aristotle considers the tragedies that were written in either of these kinds, and obierves, that those which ended unhappily had always pleased the people, and carried away the prize in the public disputes of the ftage, from those that ended happily. Terror and commiferation leave a pleasing anguish in the mind; and fix the audience in such a serious composure of thought, as is much more lasting and delightful than any little transient starts of joy and satisfaction. Accordingly we find, that more of our English tragedies have succeeded, in which the favourites of the audience sink under their calamities, than those in which they recover themselves out of them. The best plays of this kind are the Orphan, Venice Preservcd, Alexander the Great, Theodofius, All for Love, Oedipus, Oroonoko, Othello, &c. King Lear is an admirable tragedy of the fame kind, as Shakespear wrote
it; but as it is reformed according to the chimerical notion of poetical justice, in my humble opinion it has loft half its beauty. At the same time I must allow, that there are very noble tragedies, which have been framed upon the other plan, and have ended happily; as indeed most of the good tragedies which have been written since the starting of the abovementioned criticism, have taken this turn: as the Mourning Bride, Tamerlane, Ulysses, Phædra and Hippolitus, with most of Mr. Dryden's. I must also allow, that many of Shakespear's and several of the celebrated tragedies of antiquity, are cast in the same form. I do not therefore dispute against this way of writing tragedies, but against the criticism that would establish this as the only method: and by that means would very much cramp the English tragedy, and perhaps give a wrong bent to the genius of our writers.
The tragi-comedy, which is the product of the Englifh theatre, is one of the most monstrous inventions that ever entered into a poet's thoughts. An author might as well think of weaving the adventures of Æneas and Hudibras into one poem, as of writing such a motly piece of mirth and forrow. But the absurdity of these performances is so very visible, that I shall not insist upon
The same objections which are made to tragi-comedy, may in some measure be applied to all tragedies that have a double plot in them; which are likewise more frequent upon the English ftage, than upon any other; for though the grief of the audience, in such performances, be changed into another passion, as in tragi-comedies; it is
another object, which weakens their cor£ern for the principal action, and breaks the tide of forrow, by throwing it into different channels. This inconvenience, however, may in a great measure be cured, if not wholly, removed, by the skilful choice of an underplot, which may bear such a near relation to the principal design, as to contribute towards the completion of it, and be concluded by the same catastrophe.
There is also another particular, which may be reckon. ed among the blemishes, or rather the false beauties, of
our English tragedy: I mean those particular speeches which are commonly known by the name of rants. The warm and passionate parts of a tragedy are always the most taking with the audience; for which reason we often fee the players pronouncing, in all the violence of action, several parts of the tragedy which the author writ with great temper, and designed that they should have been so acted. I have seen Powell very often raise himself a loud clap by this artifice. The poets that were acquainted with this secret, have given frequent occasion for such emotions in the actor, by adding vehemence to words where there was no paffion, or inflaming a rcal paision into fustian. This hath filled the moutlis of our heroes with bombast; and given them such sentiments, as proceed rather from a swelling than a greatness of mind. Unnatural exclamations, curses, vows, blafphemies, a defiance of mankind, and an outraging of the gods, frequently pass upon the audience for tow’ring thoughits, and have accordingly met with infinite applaufe.
I shall here add a remark, which I am afraid our tragic writers may make an ill use of. As our heroes are generally lovers, their swelling and bluftring upon the stage very much recommends them to the fair part of their audience. The ladies are wonderfully pleased to see a man insulting kings, or affronting the gods in one scene, and throwing himself at the feet of his mistress in another. Let him behave himself insolently towards the men, and abjectly towards the fair one, and it is ten to one but he proves a favourite of the boxes. Dryden and Lee, in fcveral of their tragedies, have practised this secret with good fuccefs.
But to thew how a rant pleases beyond the most just and natural thought that is not pronounced with vehemence, I would defire the reader, when he secs the tragedy of Oedipus, to observe how quietly the hero is dismilled at the end of the third act, afrer having pronounced the following lines, in which the thought is very natural, and apt to move compassion;
To you, good gods, I make my last appeal;
My hands are guilty, but my heart is free. Let us then observe with what thunder-claps of applause he leaves the stage, after the impieties and execrations at the end of the fourth act; and you will wonder to see an audience so cursed and so pleased at the same time;
O that as oft I have at Athens seen (Where, by the way, there was no stage till many
years after Oedipus. ]
very deed I might behold
ADVERTISEMENT. Having spoken of Mr. Powell, as sometimes raising 6 himielf applause from the ill taste of an audience; I • must do him the justice to own, that he is excellently s formed for a tragedian, and, when he picases, deserves • the admiration of the best judges; as I doubt not but • he will in the Conquest of Mexico, which is acted for • his own benefit, to-morrow night.'