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Dramatic Poetry.- Tragedy. -- Æschylus.
Sophocles. - Euripides. — Corneille. -- Racine.- Voltaire.- Shakspeare. - Otway.Dryden.-Rowe.- Young.
MY DEAR JOHN, I SHALL proceed in this letter to a very brief consideration of dramatic poetry, a branch of literature of which your favourites the antients had very faint ideas indeed; and whoever draws his opinions from them, will never conceive properly of what we denominate, in plain English, (I cannot find a better word) a play. A play has this advantage above every other work of imagination, that it is a perfect representation of life : not only the ear and the understanding are interested, but the eye itself: it sees the whole action, and if the representation is a good one, the deception is almost complete, and we might mistake it for a reality.
Segnius irritant animos demissa per aures, " Quam quæ sunt oculis commissa fidelibus & quæ * Ipse sibi tradit spectator.'
De Art Poet. v. 180.
" What we hear
The word drama is universally allowed to be derived from the Greek verb dpan, to do, and it might be literally explained an action. Our word play perhaps is still better, as it implies an amusing representation or entertainment; yet it is perhaps more applicable to representations of the gay or sportive kind than to those of tragedy.
Both terms, however, imply an action, or story, or plot as it is sometimes called, and this constitutes the difference between plays and dialogues. Some of the pastorals of Theocritus and Virgil might be termed little dramas, because they have something of plot or story; but the majority of eclogues are mere dialogues.
According to the nature of the subject, dramatic pieces class under two divisions, tragedy or comedy; though many modern performances will not strictly fall under either of these characters; and the mixture of both (the tragi-comedy) has been practised by some of our first writers, Shakspeare, Otway, Dryden, and Southern ; and is defended by some of our first critics, I think by Dr. Johnson, as a more perfect representation of real life.
The same rules in general apply to comedy as to tragedy. Aristotle has advanced precepts for their composition, all deduced from the practice of the Greek writers, and which have been most absurdly adopted by the French critics, and dramatic writers. But before we inquire into the reasonableness of these dictates of Aristotle, it will be proper to take a cursory view of the origin and progress of the Greek drama.
There is scarcely any circumstance in which the gradual progress of human invention is more exemplified, than in the origin and improvement of dramatic composition among the Greeks.
The Greek drama was originally nothing more than a rude song, exhibited by one or more clownish minstrels, or ballad-singers, who disfigured themselves to excite attention.
Thespis, who lived 564 years before Christ, col. lected a company of them together, and transported them from village to village in a kind of waggon; and something like this state of the drama we see in the rude exhibitions of mum. mers, and morrice-dancers, in the inland parts of this kingdom. Thespis added to the singers an interlocutor, who served to explain the matter of the songs ; and in this state the drama continued, till an accident brought it to greater perfection. In the representation of a tragedy, in which the furies were exhibited, the barbarous dresses of the chorus (which consisted of fifty persons) frighted the pregnant women into fits. Hence Æschylus was induced to retrench the number of the chorus, and to compensate for the deficiency, added to the actors or interlocutors. He erected a stage, and ornamented it with machinery ; and equipped the actors with the robe, the buskin, and the mask. * The two latter of which were accommodations to the large theatres ; and if our managers proceed as they have lately done in enlarging our play-houses, our actors must be mounted in buskins, disfigured in masks, and must vociferate through speaking trumpets.
* “ The drama owes its rise to days of festivity. For in antient tiines it was usual for men, when they had collected in the fruits of the earth, to meet together, that they might sacrifice to the deity, and unbend their minds from the fatigues of the harvest. Hence arose two sorts of poetry; the one graver, in praise of the gods; the other The first essays
From this statement you will see how very imperfect the Greek drama was, and how very absurd those critics are who would confine us to a servile imitation of it. You will also see the reason of what are called the unities. The Greeks had but one scene, and as the actual performance was an ode, the chorus (or company of singers), which was originally the main object, never left the stage. The representation therefore admitted of no change
jocose, full of lampoon against one another. Under the former head we may reckon the Dithyrambics of Bacchus, hymns to the gods, and panegyrics upon heroes. Under the second, Iambics and Phallic verses. were rough, and unpolished; but, by degrees, the great actions of gods and heroes grew more numerous, and increased into set fables : so, in like manner, the jocose compositions began to come under proper regulations. Thus from the former kind arose tragedy; from the latter, satire, comedy, and mimic."--Vossius, Lib. II. c. 2.