Obrázky stránek
PDF
ePub

SPIRIT OF ELIZABETHAN DRAMA.

21

political discords such as those which later on confused the hierarchy of classes and imperilled the monarchical principle. It was a spirit in which loyalty to the person of the sovereign was at one with the sense of national independence. A powerful grasp on the realities of life was then compatible with romantic fancy and imaginative fervour. The solid earth supported the poet; but while he never quitted this firm standing-ground, he held a wand which at a touch transmuted things of fact into the airy substance of a vision. Contempt for studied purity of style and for the artificial delicacies of sentiment was combined with extraordinary vigour and vividness in the use of language, running riot often in extravagance and verbose eccentricity, and also with the most sensitive perception of emotional gradations, the most hyperbolical enthusiasms. The moral sense was sound and homely; insight into character, acute; aptitude for observing and portraying psychological peculiarities, unrivalled in its elasticity and ease. These are some of the distinctive qualities shared in common by our playwrights. It should also be added that their intolerance of rules, indifference to literary fame, and haste of composition exposed them all, with one or two illustrious exceptions, to artistic incompleteness.

VIII.

This chapter in our literature properly closes with the fall of Charles I. from power. The inspiration of Marlowe and Shakspere, the true Elizabethan impulse, had worn itself out. Judging by the latest products of the Caroline age, I cannot resist the belief that even had the Puritans not dealt a death-blow to the stage, that impulse could scarcely have yielded another succession of really vital works.

After the Restoration, Dryden and Otway, Congreve, Wycherley, Farquhar, and Vanbrugh partly refined upon some comic and tragic motives, suggested by the latest of their predecessors, and partly succeeded in creating a novel style in sympathy with altered social customs. No one will dispute the piquancy of Congreve's dialogue, the effectiveness of the domestic scenes from town and country life depicted on that glittering theatre. Yet this brilliant group of playwrights stands apart; isolated by differences of thought and sentiment, method and language, from their Elizabethan predecessors ; hardly less isolated from their few worthy successors of the Georgian age.

Far more significant than the vamped-up dramas of the eighteenth century are the novels which now take their rise, and which preserve the old dramatic genius of the English in an altered form. Our time, which offers so many parallels to that of Elizabeth, shows its literary character in no point more distinctively than in its cultivation of prose romance. Instead of dramas written to be acted, we have novels written to be read. These are produced in such profusion, with such spontaneous and untutored licence, so various in quality and yet upon the whole so excellent, that the Victorian period vindicates the survival of that dramatic aptitude which glorified the period of Elizabeth.

CHAPTER II.

THE NATION AND THE DRAMA.

1. The Function of a Great Drama-- To be both National and Universal

-How that of England fulfilled this–England and the Renaissance -Fifty Years of Mental Activity.-11. Transitional Character of that Age in England.-I11. Youthfulness—Turbulence-Marked Personality. -IV. The stalians of the Renaissance-Cellini.—V. Distinguishing Characteristics of the English--Superior Moral Qualities

- Travelling-Rudeness of Society—The Medley of the Age.-VI. How the Drama represented Society-Determination of the Romantic Species-Its Specific Quality, Materials of Plays-Heywood's Boast. -VII. Imperfections of the Romantic Style.–VIII. Treatment of Character-Violent Changes—Types of Evil-Fantastic Horrors. -IX. Insanity.--X. Meditations upon Death.-XI. Sombre Philosophy of Life-Melancholy--Religious Feeling. --XII. Blending of Gay with Grave— Types of Female Character-Boy-Actors.--XIII. Comedy of Life and of Imagination-Shaksperian Comedy-Fletcher's Romantic Comedy and Comedy of Intrigue--Hybrids between Pastoral and Allegory-Farce—Comedy of Manners-Jonson.--XIV. Questions for Criticism.-XV. Three Main Points relating to English Drama.—XVI. National Public-England compared with Italy, France, Spain.—XVII. English Poetry—Mr. M. Arnold on Literatures of Genius and Intelligence—The Inheritors of Elizabethan Poetry.-XVIII. Unimpeded Freedom of Development --Absence of Academies—No Interference from Government–The Dramatic Art considered as a Trade and a Tradition.-XIX. Dramatic Clairvoyance--Insight into Human Nature-Insight into Dramatic Method. -XX. The Morality of the Elizabethan Drama.—XXI. Its Importance in Educating the People-In Stimulating Patriotism-Contrast with the Drama of the Restoration.-XXII. Improvement of the Language--Variety of Styles --Creation of Blank Verse.-XXIII. History of Opinion on the Drama-De Quincey's Panegyric.

1. At all periods of history the stage has been a mirror of the age and race in which it has arisen. Dramatic poets more than any other artists reproduce the life of men around them; exhibiting their aims, hopes, wishes, aspirations, passions, in an abstract more intensely coloured than the diffuse facts of daily experience. It is the function of all artistic genius to interpret human nature to itself, and to leave in abiding form a record of past ages to posterity ; but more especially of the dramatic genius, which rules for its domain the manners, actions, destinies of men. The result attained by a great drama in those few

ages
and
among

those rare races which can boast this highest growth of art, is twofold. On the one hand it shows the very age and body of the time his form and pressure;' it is strictly local, national, true to the epoch of its origin. But it is more than this; it is on the other hand a glass held up to nature, reflecting what is permanent in man beneath the customs and costumes, the creeds and polities, of any age or nation.

These remarks, though obvious enough, contain a truth which must not be neglected on the threshold of our inquiry into the origins of the English Drama. If it be granted that other theatres, the Greek, the Spanish, and the French, each of which embalms for us the spirit of a great people at one period of the world's development, are at the same time by their revelation of man's nature permanent and universal, this may be claimed in even a stricter sense for the English. Never since the birth of the dramatic art in Greece has any theatre displayed a genius so local and spontaneously popular, so thoroughly representative of the century in which it sprang to power, so national in tone and character. Yet none has been more universal by right of insight into the essential qualities of human nature,

FUNCTION OF THE DRAMA.

25

by right of sympathy with every phase of human feeling, by right of meditation upon all the problems which have vexed the human spirit; none is more permanent by right of artistic potency and beauty, accumulated learning, manifold experience, variety of presentation, commanding interest, and inexhaustible fertility of motives.

We are led to ask how our Drama came to be in this high sense both national and universal ; how our playwrights, working for their age and race, achieved the artistic triumph of presenting to the world an abstract picture of humanity so complex and so perfect. Questions like these can never be completely answered. There remains always something inscrutable in the spontaneous efforts of a nation finely touched to a fine issue. Yet some considerations will help us to understand, if not to explain, the problem. And, in the first place, it may be repeated that the intellectual movement, to which we give the name of Renaissance, expressed itself in England mainly through the Drama. Other races in that era of quickened activity, when modern man regained the consciousness of his own strength and goodliness after centuries of mental stagnation and social depression, threw their energies into the plastic arts and scholarship. The English found a similar outlet for their pent-up forces in the Drama. The arts and literature of Greece and Rome had been revealed by Italy to Europe. Humanism had placed the present once more in a vital relation to the past. The navies of Portugal and Spain had discovered new continents beyond the ocean ; the merchants of Venice and Genoa had explored the

« PředchozíPokračovat »