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man art it seems necessary to prevent confusion in the minds of the hearers.
A modern play, you must perceive, is a very different composition, and therefore to confine us to the same narrow limits as the Greek dramatists, is to say mankind shall never improve: yet upon this ridiculous system have critics proceeded; nay, it has even been doubted by some of them whether the moderns have judged well in laying aside the chorus: it certainly added, they allege, both to the magnificence and morality of the stage, as it was always employed in commending virtue; but surely it detracted very much from the probability of the performance. Either the chorus is detached from the tragedy, and then it is quite unnatural, or the persons of the chorus have some connection with the subject, and then it is very difficult for the poet to preserve the probability. As the chorus was first invented, it is no wonder it was retained so long a time; but had the tragedy been first, it is very probable the other would never have had a being.
Upon these principles let us now examine what Aristotle had deemed indispensable....the three unities, of action, time, and place; the first of these I have always thought important to every composition, and I have already shewn in what it consists, namely, the relation of every incident to some great action or end; and it is no less necessary to preserve it in epic poetry than in tragedy. It is essential even to history, for the detail of two narratives at once, or the intermixture of them can only serve to confuse. The common practice is to divide the whole performance into five acts, though this practice has no foundation in nature: the first, it is said, should contain an exposition of the design of the representation; this was formerly performed in a long speech by way of prologue by one actor. Thus it is in Sophocles and Euripides; but the moderns have judged better in making the actors open the subject by discoursing together in the first act. In the second, third, and fourth acts, the plot should proceed and draw towards a crisis, and prepare gradually for the
developement in the fifth act. It is a rule, which should always be observed, that no person should ever come upon the stage and go off again without the reason of his appearance being obvious, and absolutely essential to the plot. Another rule is, that all the persons should be actually engaged in the business of the tragedy, and not introduced merely as hearers of the principal personages. This is a rule which has been greatly neglected by modern writers of tragedies, as the princi pal persons are commonly attended by a mute companion, or humble friend, who seems to have no other business on the stage than to afford them an opportunity of relating their story.
The second unity is that of time, which (according to those absurd critics who have merely copied from the imperfect sketches left by the ancients) requires that a play should occupy no more time in the supposed action than it does in the representation. Unity of place (according to the same prejudiced judges, who never looked at the origin of the prejudice) required that the scene should be never shifted from one place to another. By observing the first of these, the ancients had great difficulty to find any interesting events which could be supposed to be acted in so short a time; on this account Aristotle himself, who was a slave to precedent, was obliged to change the time, and allowed them twenty-four hours.
That they might not violate the third unity, they were obliged to fix their action in some public place, such as a court or area before a palace; on which account much business was transacted there which ought to have been done in private.
The truth is, as I before observed, these two last unities arose out of the imperfection of the Greek drama. As the chorus never left the stage, the curtain was not let down between the acts. Shakspeare understood nature better than those pedantic critics who have extolled the unities of Aristotle; and surely, according to the modern custom, the spectators can, with no degree of violence upon the imagination while the action
is suspended, suppose a certain time to elapse between the acts; and by a very small effort of the imagination, they can also suppose themselves transported, or the scene shifted, from one place to another.
Upon the whole then, it is plain the moderns have judged rightly in laying aside the chorus; and Shakspeare, who rejected the unities of time and place, has produced the best dramas. Corneille and Racine, on the other hand, are generally very exact in the observation of Aristotle's rules, and their plays are proportionably vapid and lifeless.
The plot and the sentiment in tragedy should conspire to leave favourable impressions and opinions of virtue on the mind; if virtuous men suffer, it must render their virtues more amiable: this may be done by representing their misfortunes as the effects of the vices of others, or of their own failings; but they should never be made to suffer on account of their virtues. Aristotle observes, that the characters brought upon the stage should never be perfectly good or ill, but of a mixed kind. Mr. Addison's Cato is a very stiff character; as he is not affected with his own misfortunes, he does not raise in us that admiration which tragedy is designed to inspire. A stoic philosopher makes a bad hero of a tragedy.
Dr. Blair is justly surprised that the ancient critics have thought the play of CEdipus the most proper subject of tragedy. Edipus kills his father, and marries his mother, so that he is guilty both of parricide and incest without knowing it; and though he is represented as a person of good moral disposition, he is made to end his days in the most miserable manner. Such a shocking action cannot be supposed to have happened above once or twice in the course of things, if it can be supposed to have happened at all; besides it tends rather to excite horror than pity. Almost a similar subject was chosen by an author of our own times (the late Earl of Orford), with certainly a much better moral, the misery attendant on the indulgence of all inordinate passions; yet that subject was much too shocking
and indecent for the stage; and the manager would have deserved the severest censure who would have presented it to an English audience. I allude to the "Mysterious Mother."
The plot of a tragedy may be either founded upon real history, or be wholly fictitious. Shakspeare chose his subjects from Hollingshead or Stow, or from an old ballad; and in both he has succeeded. And though persons of high rank and fame are well calculated to excite attention in the dramatis persona, yet the tragic muse may often descend into the recesses of private life, and produce perhaps a more interesting picture than if it had even proceeded from a palace. This is evident in the charming tragedy of George Barnwell, and in one which, though inferior in merit is almost equal in moral utility, the Gamester.
There is hardly any subject which can deeply interest the passions that is improper for tragedy. The ancients scarcely ever introduced the passion of love into their dramas; the French, till the time of Voltaire, I believe, never produced a tragedy without it. Shakspeare neither rejects it, nor deems it necessary on all occasions whiningly to introduce it.
The success of every dramatic production will chiefly depend upon the plot being well chosen and interesting. Some of Dr. Young's tragedies, which are now banished from the stage, are much finer as compositions than Douglas; but the interesting story of the latter will always render it popular. Shakspeare's plots are in general very happily chosen, even without excepting his historical plays; for though he has written these in a sort of series, yet he has seized upon the most interesting incidents and events in the reigns which he depicts.
Next to the judicious choice and arrangement of the plot, the greatest excellence of a dramatic piece is the happy display of character. The unity of action (which is the only one I allow) must be here strictly preserved. In common life we observe men at different times swayed by different humours and passions; yet still
there is a discriminating character; there is a turn of mind which evidently distinguishes one man from another. In dramatic representation this unity of character must be nicely preserved; so that a spectator (if blindfold) ought to distinguish the personage who speaks, even without any reference to the voice of the actor. The character should extend through the whole piece; he must not be a different man at the beginning from what he proves in the end. A contrast of characters has been recommended by critics, and in comedy it has certainly an excellent effect, as when the miser is opposed to the prodigal, the fop to the sloven, the loquacious to the sententious. But this does not appear so essential to tragedy, though Mr. Addison, in his Cato, has apparently studied to put all his characters in
A great error of all our modern tragic poets is making all their characters speak in the same style. They endeavour to mark the character rather by some peculiarity in thought than in the manner of expressing it, whereas both should be observed. Hence their characters are often absurd without being striking, or more frequently are perfectly insipid. Shakspeare possessed that peculiar versatility of talent that his marked characters have not only a peculiarity of thought, but a peculiarity of language. Iago does not express himself like Othello; nor Cassio like either. Hamlet and the King do not speak alike, any more than Hotspur and the Prince. In comedy there is greater scope for this kind of discrimination; but here it is also miserably neglected, unless where the Irish or Scotch accent can be called in aid of a barren imagination.
The language of tragedy must be dignified, yet not too poetical. We must never forget that it is a representation of nature and of conversation. It must not therefore appear too much studied; for that would destroy the pleasing illusion, which is its greatest charm.
On the same principle I abhor soliloquies. What person in real life, except an ideot or madman, ever talks to himself? When we see an actor left upon the stage,