« ZurückWeiter »
many circumstances and intrigues, perplexed and disentangled, so as to surprise ; if it was nearly the same with that which Corneille practised in his time ; if, like that of Terence, it went no farther than to draw the common portraits of simple nature, and show us fathers, sons, and rivals; notwithstanding the uniformity, which would always prevail, as in the plays of Terence, and, probably, in those of Menander, whom he imitated in his four first pieces, there would always be a resource found, either in variety of incidents, like those of the Spaniards, or in the repetition of the same characters, in the way of Terence; but the case is now very different, the publick calls for new characters, and nothing else. Multiplicity of accidents, and the laborious contrivance of an intrigue, are not now allowed to shelter a weak genius, that would find great conveniencies in that way of writing. Nor does it suit the taste of comedy, which requires an air less constrained, and such freedom and ease of manners as admits nothing of the romantick. She leaves all the pomp of sudden events to the novels, or little romances, which were the diversion of the last age. She allows nothing but a succession of characters resembling nature, and falling in, without any apparent contrivance. Racine has, likewise, taught us to give to tragedy the same simplicity of air and action; he has endeavoured to disentangle it from that great number of incidents, which made it rather a study than diversion to the audience, and which show the poet not so much to abound in invention, as to be deficient in taste. But, notwithstanding all that he has done, or that we can do, to make it simple, it will always have the advantage over comedy in the number of its subjects, because it admits more variety of situations and events, which give variety and novelty to the characters. A miser, copied after nature, will always be the miser of Plautus or Molière; but a Nero, or a prince like Nero, will not always be the hero of Racine. Comedy admits of so little intrigue, that the miser cannot be shown in any such position as will make his picture new; but the great events of tragedy
may put Nero in such circumstances, as to make him wholly another character.
But, in the second place, over and above the subjects, may we not say something concerning the final purpose of comedy and tragedy? The purpose of the one is to divert, and the other to move; and, of these two, which is the easier ? To go to the bottom of those purposes; to move is to strike those strings of the heart which are most natural, terrour and pity; to divert is to make one laugh, a thing which, indeed, is natural enough, but more delicate. The gentleman and the rustick have both sensibility and tenderness of heart, perhaps, in greater or less degree; but as they are men alike, the heart is moved by the same touches. They both love, likewise, to send their thoughts abroad, and to expand themselves in merriment; but the springs which must be touched for this purpose are not the same in the gentleman as in the rustick. The passions depend on nature, and merriment upon education. The clown will laugh at a waggery, and the gentleman only at a stroke of delicate conceit. The spectators of a tragedy, if they have but a little knowledge, are almost all on a level; but with respect to comedy we have three classes, if not more, the people, the learned, and the court. If there are certain cases in which all may be comprehended in the term people, this is not one of those cases. Whatever father Rapin may say about it, we are more willing even to admire than to laugh. Every man, that has any power of distinction, laughs as rarely as the philosopher admires; for we are not to reckon those fits of laughter which are not incited by nature, and which are given merely to complaisance, to respect, flattery, and good-humour; such as break out at sayings which pretend to smartness in assemblies. The laughter of the theatre is of another stamp. Every reader and spectator judges of wit by his own standard, and measures it by his capacity, or by his condition: the different capacities and conditions of men make them diverted on very different occasions. If, therefore, we consider the end of the tragick and comick poet, the comedian
must be involved in much more difficulties, without taking in the obstructions to be encountered equally by both, in an art which consists in raising the passions, or the mirth of a great multitude. The tragedian has little to do but to reflect upon his own thought, and draw from his heart those sentiments which will certainly make their way to the hearts of others, if he found them in his own. The other must take many forms, and change himself almost into as many persons, as he undertakes to satisfy and divert.
It may be said, that, if genius be supposed equal, and success supposed to depend upon genius, the business will be equally easy and difficult to one author and to the other. This objection is of no weight; for the same question still recurs, which is, whether of these two kinds of genius is more valuable, or more rare? If we proceed by example, and not by reasoning, we shall decide, I think, in favour of comedy.
It may be said, that, if merely art be considered, it will require deeper thoughts to form a plan just and simple ; to produce happy surprises, without apparent contrivance; to carry a passion skilfully through its gradations to its height; to arrive happily to the end by always moving from it, as Ithaca seemed to fly Ulysses ; to unite the acts and scenes; and to raise, by insensible degrees, a striking edifice, of which the least merit shall be exactness of proportion. It may be added, that in comedy this art is infinitely less, for there the characters come upon the stage with very little artifice or plot; the whole scheme is so connected that we see it at once, and the plan and disposition of the parts make a small part of its excellence, in comparison of a gloss of pleasantry diffused over each scene, which is more the happy effect of a lucky moment, than of long consideration.
These objections, and many others, which so fruitful a subject might easily suggest, it is not difficult to refute; and, if we were to judge by the impression made on the mind by tragedies and comedies of equal excellence, per
haps, when we examine those impressions, it will be found that a sally of pleasantry, which diverts all the world, required more thought than a passage which gave the highest pleasure in tragedy; and, to this determination we shall be more inclined, when a closer examination shall show us, that a happy vein of tragedy is opened and effused at less expense, than a well-placed witticism in comedy has required, merely to assign its place.
It would be too much to dwell long upon such a digression; and, as I have no business to decide the question, I leave both that and my arguments to the taste of each particular reader, who will find what is to be said for or against it. My purpose was only to say of comedy, considered as a work of genius, all that a man of letters can be supposed to deliver without departing from his character, and, without palliating, in any degree, the corrupt use which has been almost always made of an exhibition, which, in its nature, might be innocent; but has been vicious from the time that it has been infected with the wickedness of men. It is not for publick exhibitions that I am now writing, but for literary inquiries. The stage is too much frequented, and books too much neglected : yet it is to the literature of Greece and Rome that we are indebted for that valuable taste, which will be insensibly lost, by the affected negligence, which now prevails, of having recourse to originals. If reason has been a considerable gainer, it must be confessed that taste has been somewhat a loser.
To return to Aristophanes. So many great men of antiquity, through a long succession of ages, down to our times, have set a value upon his works, that we cannot, naturally, suppose them contemptible, notwithstanding the essential faults with which he may be justly reproached. It is sufficient to say, that he was esteemed by Plato and Cicero; and, to conclude, by that which does him most honour, but, still, falls short of justification, the strong and sprightly eloquence of St. Chrysostom drew its support from the masculine and vigorous atticism of this sarcastick comedian, to whom the father paid the same regard as Alexander to Homer, that of putting his works under his pillow, that he might read them, at night, before he slept, and, in the morning, as soon as be awaked.
TO BRUMOY'S GREEK THEATRE.
1. SUMMARY OF THE FOUR ARTICLES TREATED OF IN
Thus I have given a faithful extract of the remains of Aristophanes. That I have not shown them in their true form, I am not afraid that any body will complain. I have given an account of every thing, as far as it was consistent with moral decency. No pen, however cynical or heathenish, would venture to produce, in open day, the horrid passages which I have put out of sight; and, instead of regretting any part that I have suppressed, the very suppression will easily show to what degree the Athenians were infected with licentiousness of imagination, and corruption of principles. If the taste of antiquity allows us to preserve what time and barbarity have hitherto spared, religion and virtue at least oblige us not to spread it before the eyes of mankind. To end this work in an useful manner, let us examine, in a few words, the four particulars which are most striking in the eleven pieces of Aristophanes.
2. CHARACTER OF ANCIENT COMEDY.
The first is the character of the ancient comedy, which has no likeness to any thing in nature. Its genius is so wild and strange, that it scarce admits a definition. In what class of comedy must we place it? It appears, to me, to be a species of writing by itself. If we had Pbrynicus, Plato, Eupolis, Cratinus, Ameipsias, and so many