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It is not easy, at the present day, to determine, whether the ancients were acquainted with that species of dramatic writing, which we call Farce. By some the Satiric Drama of antiquity is considered as corresponding to this style; while others are of opinion, that the Middle Comedy of the Greeks, is the true original of the English Farce.
Instead of entering into a learned and tedious discussion of this question, it will be sufficient at present to observe, that Farce cannot be deemed an exact and legitimate species of the Drama. It delights in exaggeration; and, in every portrait, it enlarges the features of the individual beyond their true proportion : so that, instead of real character, it exhibits to the view of the beholder an overcharged caricature. Its object is not so much to promote morality, as mirth; and, while Comedy aims, by a series of agreeable incidents, to inculcate a precept, the only end of Farce is to excite a laugh. Nor is this a matter of so small importance as might at first be imagined. For Sterne (see the Dedication to Mr Pitt in Tristram Shandy) has observed,“ that “ every time a man siniles, but much more so when he laughs, it adds some" thing to this fragment of life.” If this doctrine be true, the contents of this volume will certainly contribute something towards the longevity of the age.
From this description it will be obvious how much the writers of Farce must be indebted to the scenic art, for the full effect and success of their pieces. Tragedy is able to support itself by the elevation of its language and the dignity of its sentiments. The well-drawn characters, and delicate strokes of wit, which adorn the pages of legitimate comedy, will delight almost as much in the closet, as on the stage. But Farce, which is in itself a species of broad grimace, requires all the mimickry of an actor, to set it off to just advantage. Tragedy may be considered as a pathetic invocation to our passions; Comedy as an easy and sportive appeal to our reason; but Farce addresses itself to the risible faculties only, and stands in need of all the tricks and gestures of an actor, to enliven the character represented, and exhibit those peculiarities of humour, which no language can describe, and which none but the most vivid imagination is capable of conceiving.
It is an obvious deduction from these observations, that, if Farce existed at all in elder times, it could not have been accompanied with those charms and attributes, that make it so universal a favourite at present; for the ancients were lamentably deficient in the histrionic art : and the mask, which was universally worn by performers in those times, is alone sufficient to evince, that the science of just representation was then but little understood. A comic piece, in a Greek or a Roman theatre, must have resembled the exhibition of Punch at Bartholomew-fair more than the exquisite performance of Nature's “ laughing children” on the boards of Drury-Lane or Covent-Garden. For, although the mask might give a just representation of features for a single moment, it could not mark those successive changes of expression, which constitute the charm of just acting. It robs us of the eloquent eye and the genuine melody of voice. The stare of surprise, the sudden flashes of anger, the pallid hue and tremulous accent of fear, are all lost under the monotonous uniformity of a mask. The actor, who comes on the stage laughing, must continue to laugh, wben he has no longer any share in the joke. Though cudgelled by his master, and scolded by his wife, he must grin on to the end of the scene.
The multitude and excellence of our farces, then, may perhaps be in a great measure attributed to the better construction of modern theatres, and to the judicious rejection of the mask: Nor will it be venturing too bold an assertion to affirm, that Garrick would never have acted, nor Foote have written, had they lived under the old theatrical regime. The discipline of the stage has a decided influence upon the productions of the closet : and mimic excellence bas often excited into a flame the dormant spark of dramatic genius. It is related, that Moliere, when young, accompanied by his father, went to the theatre at Paris, while he was yet undecided in the choice of a profession, and that