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TRIUMPH OF THE ROMANTIC DRAMA.
1. Fifty-two Plays at Court-Analysis of their Subjects—The Court
follows the Taste of the People—The ‘Damon and Pithias' of Edwards— Romeo and Juliet '-'Tancred' and 'Gismunda' - Promos and Cassandra.'-II. Contemporary Criticisms of the Romantic Style -Gosson-Whetstone-Sidney.--111. Description of the English Popular Play—The Florentine Farsa--Destinies of this form in England.
I. Though the pseudo-classical or Italian type of Tragedy engaged the attention of learned writers, it must not therefore be imagined that the Court was exclusively addicted to this kind of entertainment. From Minutes of the Revels between 1568 and 1580, Mr. Collier has published a list of fifty-two plays; eighteen of which bear antique titles, while twenty-one appear to have been Dramatised Romances, six Moral Plays, and seven Comedies. None of these survive. Composed by unknown playwrights only to be acted, they perished in thumbed MSS. together with the other properties of their itinerant possessors, before arriving at the honours of the press. Only Gentlemen of Gray's Inn or the Middle Temple, amateur authors and dilettante actors could afford the luxury of printing their
performances. Only tragedies put on the stage with the éclat of Gorboduc,' tempted publishers to acts of piracy.
That the fifty-two plays, cited by Collier as having been exhibited at Court during those twelve years, failed to struggle into print, proves that the life of the popular drama was exuberantly vigorous. Men of birth and erudition might translate or copy Seneca, with the view of elevating English taste; and such men had a direct reason for publishing their works. But those numerous professional artists who now catered for the public—strolling players, setting up their booths in the yards of hostelries or knocking at great men's seasons of festivity—actors with temporary licence from the local magistrates-superior companies with licence from the Queen - Lord Leicester's Servants, Lord Derby's Servants, the Lord Chamberlain's Servants, Lord North’s Servants—these men plied their trade with no further object in view than full houses, fair receipts, and the approbation of mixed audiences. Permanent theatres were already established in more than one quarter of the suburbs; and the people had become the patrons of the stage. It was not to the interest of such professional players to produce their repertories in a printed form. A popular piece was valuable property, and was jealously guarded by the company which owned it. Moreover, it is highly probable that the rudimentary dramas of this epoch existed in single copies, from which the leading actor taught his troop, or that they were ‘Plat-form'sketches filled in by extemporisation.
Though the titles of these fifty-two plays are both curious and instructive, it would serve no useful purpose to attempt to classify them. Orestes' and the * History of Cynocephali;' Duke of Milan' and · Murderous Michael ;' Six Fools' and 'The History of Error :' we seem in these names to detect the classic and romantic fable, the Italian story and the domestic tragedy, the farce and the morality. But one thing may be safely assumed of the whole list; viz. that whatever was their subject-matter, they were each and all designed for popular amusement. In other words, we can feel tolerably certain that these plays, produced at Court, formed together a mixed species, observant of no literary rules, depending for effect upon the scope afforded to the actor, and for success upon appeal to the taste of uninstructed London playgoers. Such as they were, they contained in embryo the English or Romantic Drama, the Drama which Marlowe was to mould and Shakspere was to perfect.
There is plenty of proof that at this period, a period decisive for the future of the English theatre, the Court rather followed than directed the taste of the people. It was the business of the Master of the Revels, upon the occasion of Christmas or some other feast-time, to convene the players and invite them to rehearse the pieces they were ready to perform. The companies produced the budget of such plays as they were in the habit of exhibiting before the public or at great men's houses; and from these the Master of the Revels chose what he thought suitable. The Queen herself had no fastidious appetite. All she seems to have cared for in the matter of stage-spectacles, was that the supply should be both plentiful and various. Thus, instead of hampering the evolution of the national drama in its earlier stages, the Court gave it protection and encouragenient.
Performances at Court confirmed THE PUBLIC AND THE COURT.
and ratified the popularity which any piece had gained by open competition.
The Romantic species, with all its absurdities and extravagances, with its careless ignorance of rules and single-minded striving after natural effect, took root and acquired form before critics and scholars turned their attention seriously to the stage. A school of playwrights and of actors, dependent upon popular support, came into being London audiences were already accustomed to the type of play which thus undisputedly assumed possession of the theatre. It was too late now for critics or for scholars to resist that growth of wilding art; for the genius of the people had adopted it, and the Queen did not disdain it. Great poets were soon to see the opportunity it offered them; and great actors bent their talents to the special style of histrionic art which it demanded. In spite of pedantic opposition, in spite of Sidney's noble scorn, the world was destined to rejoice in Shakspere.
Even playwrights of superior station and culture, poets aspiring to the honours of the press, were irresistibly attracted by the vogue of the Romantic Drama. Thus Richard Edwards, whose work is mentioned with applause by Puttenham, selected a subject from Valerius Maximus, and composed a tragi-comedy upon
the tale of Damon and Pithias' (1565 ?). Yet, though he laid the scene at Syracuse, he brought Grim, the Collier of Croydon, to the court of Dionysius, mixing kings and clowns, philosophers and classic worthies, in admired confusion. The fashionable study of Italian was not merely fruitful of translations in the style of the 'Supposes' and ` Jocasta.' Popular tales were dramatised in all their details. The Novella, with its complicated episodes, was presented in a series of loosely connected scenes. Our earliest Romeo and Juliet' saw the light, as appears from Arthur Brooke's preface to his poem on this story, before 1562. Boccaccio's tale of Tancred and Gismunda' was produced upon the stage in Robert Wilmot's version in 1563. George Whetstone made one of Cinthio's Hecatommithi the subject of his ‘Promos and Cassandra, printed in two parts in 1578. Cinthio had already dramatised this story in the 'Epitia ;' and Shakspere conferred immortality upon its fable by using it for · Measure for Measure.'
1 This play was entered on the Stationers' Books in 1567. Collier conjectures that it may have been the tragedy' by Edwards which was played before the Queen two years earlier than this date.
From plays which found their way into the printer's hands, we cannot rightly judge the products of this fertile epoch. They are far too few in number, and with some rare exceptions are the compositions of men distinguished by birth and literary culture. In order to form a more exact conception of the romantic drama in its period of incubation, when professional actors and playwrights—the two arts being commonly exercised by the same persons—were unconsciously shaping the new style, we have to view it in the mirror of contemporary criticism. That criticism emanates from writers hostile to the popular stage on several accounts. Some, like John Northbrooke, assail it on