George Colman.

Critical reflections on the old English dramatick writers; : intended as a preface to the works of Massinger. online

. (page 1 of 3)
Online LibraryGeorge ColmanCritical reflections on the old English dramatick writers; : intended as a preface to the works of Massinger. → online text (page 1 of 3)
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lick. To whom then can fuch an Eiiay be more
properly infcribed than to you, whom that Publick
leems to have appointed, as its oWiti Jrhiier Deli -


[ 3 1

clarum, to prcfide over the Amufements of the The-
atre^?-r-But there is alfo; by the bye, a private Rea-
fon for addrening you. Your honefl: Friend Daviess
who, as is faid of the provident Comedians in Holland^
fpends his Hours of Vacation froin the Theatre in
his Shop, is too well acquainted with the Efficacy of
your Name at the Top of a Play-Bill, to omit an
Opportunity of prefixing it to a new Publication ;
hoping it may prove a Charm to draw in Purchafers,
like the Head of Shakcfpeare on his Sign. My Let-
ter too being anonymous, your Name at the Head,
will more than compenfate for the Want of mine at
the End of it : And our above-mentioned Friend is,
no Doubt, too well verfed in both his Occupations,
not to know the Confequence of Secrecy in .a Book-
feller, as well as the Necefiity of concealing from the
Publick many Things that pafs behind the Curtain*

There is perhaps no Country in the World more
fubsrdinate to the Power of Fafliion, than our own.
Every Whim., every Word, every Vice, every Virtue
in its Turn becomes the Mode, and is followed with
a certain Rage of Approbation for a Time. The
favourite Stile in all the polite Arts, and the reigning
Tafte in Letters, are as notorioufly Objedls of Ca-
price as Architedure and Drefs. A new Poem, or
Novel, or Farce, are as inconfiderately extolled or
decried as a Ruff or a Chinefe Rail, a Lloop or a Bow
Window. Hence it happens, that the Publick Tafte
is often vitiated : Or if, by Chance, it has made a
proper Choice, becomes partially attached to one
Species of Excellence, and remaains dead to the Stn^c
of all other Merit, however equal, or fuperior.

I .think I may venture to aifert, with a Confidence,
that on Refiedlion it will appear to be true, that the
eminent Clafs of V/riters, who .flourifned at the Be-
ginning of this Century, have almofl entirely, fuper-
feded their illuflrious PredecelTors. The Works of
Congreve^ Vanhirgh^ Steele^ Addifon^ Pope^ Swift^
Gay^ &c. &c. are the chief Study of the Million : I

B 2 fav,.

[ 4 ]

fay, of the Million, for as to thofe few, who are not
only familiar with all our own Authors, but are alfo
converfant with the Antients, they are not to be cir-
cumfcribedby thenarrowLiniitsof theFajhion. Shake-
fpeare and Milton feem to fhand alone, like firft-rate
Authors, amid the general Wreck of old EngUfl:^
Literature. Milton perhaps owes much of his pre-
fent Fame to the generous Labours and good Tafte
of Addifon. Shakefpeare has been tranfmitted down
to us with fucceffive Glories ; and you, Sir, have
continued, or rather increafed, his Reputation.
You have, in no fulfome Strain of Compliment,
been filled the Bed Commentator on his Works :
But have you not, like other Commentators, con-
tra6led a narrow, exclufive. Veneration of your
Author ? Has not the Contemplation of Shakefpeare's
Excellencies almofi dazzled and extinguiflied your
Judgment, when directed to other Obje6ls, and
jnade you blind to the Merit of his Cotemporaries ?
Under your Dominion, have not Beaumont and
Fletcher^ nay even Jonfon^ fuffered a "Kind of thea-
trical Diigrace ? And has not poor Maffinger^ whofe
Caufe I have now undertaken, been permitted to lan-
guiili in Obfcurity, and remained almofi entirely
unknown ?

To this perhaps it may be plaufibly anfwered, nor
indeed v/ithout fome Foundation, that many of our
old Plays, though they abound with Beauties, and
are raifed much above the humble Level of later
Writers, are yet, on feveral Accounts, unfit to be
exhibited on the modern Stage •, that the Fable, in-
flead of being raifed on probable Incidents in real
Life, is generally built on fome foreign Novel, and
attended vvith romantickCircumftances; that theCon-
dudl of thefe extravagant Stories is frequently un-
couth, and infinitely offeniive to that dramatick Cor-
rednefs prefcribed by late Criticks, and pradifed, as
they pretend, by the French Writers ; and that the
Characters, exhibited in our old Plays, can have no


[ 5 1'

pleafing Effed on a modern Audience, as they arc
fo totally different from the Manners of the prefent


. Thefe, and fuch as thefe, might once have ap-
peared reafonable Objedlions : But you, Sir, of ail
Peribns, can urge them with the leaft Grace, fmce
your Pradice has fo fully proved their Infufnciency.
Your Experience muil have taught you, that when a
Piece has any ftriking Beauties, they will cover a
Multitude of Inaccuracies -, and that a Play need not
be written on the fevered Plan, to pleafe in the Re-
prefentation. The Mind is foon familiarized to Ir-
regularities, which do not fm againil the Truth of
Nature, but are merely Violations of that ftrid De-
. corum, of late fo earneilly infilled on. What patient
Spedlators are we of the Inconfiilencies that confef-
fedly prevail in our darling Sbakefpeare I What criti-
cal Catcall ever proclaimed the Indecency of intro-
ducing the Stocks in the Tragedy of Lear ? How
quietly do we fee Glofter take his imaginary Leap
from Dover Cliff ! Or to give a ftronger Inftance of
Patience, with what a philofophical Calmnefs do the
Audience dofe over the tedious, and uninterefting,
Love-Scenes, with v/hich the bungling Hand of
"Tate has coarfely pieced and patched that rich Work
of Sbakefpeare /—-To inftance further from Sbakefpeare
himfelf, the Grave-diggers in Hamlet (not to men-
tion Polonius) are not only endured, but applauded ;
the very Nurfe in Romeo and Juliet is allowed to Idc
Nature; the Tranfa6tions of a whole Hiftory are,
without Offence, begun and compleated in lefs than
three hours-, and we are agreeably wafted by the
Cborus^ or oftener without lb much Ceremony, from
one End of the World to another.

It is very true, that it was the general Practice of
our old Writers, to found their Pieces on .fonae fo^
reign Novel •, and it feemed to be their chief Aim to
tak'e the Story, as it ftood, with all its appendant In-
cidents of eveiy Complexion, and throw it into


[ 6 ] .

Scenes. This Method was, to be fure, rather inar-
tificial, as it at once overloaded and embarrafled the
Fable, leaving it deftitute of that beautiful dramatick
ConnecStion, which enables the Mind to take in all
its Circumilances with Facility and Delight. But I
am ilill in Doubt, whether many Writers, who come
nearer to our own Times, have much mended the
Matter, What with their Plots, and Double-Plots,
and Counter-plots, and Under-Plots, the Mind is as
much perplexed to piece out the Story, as to put to-
gether the disjointed Parts of our ancient Drama.
The Comedies of Congreve have, in my Mind, as
little to boaft of Accuracy in their Conilrudion, as
the Plays of 6'i'^^f^^^r^ J -nay, perhaps, it might be
proved that, amidfl the moft open Violation of the
lefTer critical Unities, one Point is more fteadily per-
illed, one Charadler more uniformly fhewn, and one
grand Purpofe of the Fable more evidently accom-
plilhed in the Produdions of Shakefpeare than of

Thefe Fables (it may be further obje6led) founded
on romantick Novels, are unpardonably wild and ex-
travagant in their Circumftances, and exhibit too
little even of the Manners of the Age in which they
were written. The Plays too are in themfelves a
Kind of heterogeneous Compofition \ fcarce any of
them being, ftridly fpeaking. Tragedy, Comedy,
or even Tragi- Com.edy, but rather an indigefled
Jumble of every Species thrown together.

This Charge muft be confeffed to be true : But
upon Examination it will, perhaps, be found of lefs
Confequence than is generally imagined. Thefe
Dramatick Tales, for fo v/e m.ay bed ilile fuch Plays,
have often occafioned muchPleafure to the Reader and
Spedator, which could not "pofiibly have been con-
veyed to them by any other Vehicle. Many an in-
terefting Story, which, from the Diverfity of its Cir-
cumftances, ' cannot be regularly reduced either to
Tragedy or Comedy, yet abounds with Character,



and contains feveral affeding Situations : And why
fuch a Story fhould lofe its Force, dramatically related
and afTifled by Reprefentation, when it pleafes, under
the colder Form of a Novel, is difficult to conceive.
Experience has proved the Effed: of fuch Fidtions
on our Minds •, and convinced us, that the Theatre
is not that barren Ground, wherein the Plants of
Imagination will not flourifn. The 1'empeft^ the Mid-
fmnmer Nighfs Breain^ the Merchant of Venice, Js
you like it^ 'Twelfth Nighty the Faithful Shepherdefs of
Fletcher^ (with a much longer Lift that might be
added from Shakefpeare^ Beaumont and Fletcher^ and
their Cotemporaries, or immicdiate SuccefTors) have
moft of them, within all our Memories, been ranked
among the moft popular Entertainments of the
Stage. Yetnone^of thefe can be denominated Tra-
gedy, Comedy, or Tragi-Comedy. The Flay Bills,
I have obferved, cautioufiy ftile them Plays : And
Plays indeed they are, truly fuch, if it be the End
of Plays to delight and infcru61, to captivate at
once the Ear, the Eye, and the Mind, by Situations
forcibly conceived, and Charafters truly delineated.

There is once Circumftance in Dramatick Poetry,
which, I think, the chaftifed Notions of our modern
Criticks do not permit them fufficiently to confider.
Dramatick Nature is of a more large and liberal Qua-
lity, than they are willing to allow. It does not
confift merely in the Reprefentation of Real Charac-
ters, Charaders acknowledged to abound in common
Life; but may be extended alfo to the Exhibition of
imaginary Beings. To Create, is to be a Poet in-
deed ; to draw down Beings from an9ther Sphere,
and endue them with fuitable PaGions, Affediions,
Diipofitions, allotting them at the fame Time pros-
per Employment; to body forth^ by the Pov/ers of
Imagination, the Forms of Things unknown^ and to
give to airy Nothing a local Habitation and a Name^
iurely requires a Genius for the Drama equal, if not
fuperior, to the Delineation of Perfonagcs in the or-

[ 8 ]

dinary Courfe of Nature. Shakefpear3 in particular
is univerfally acknowledged never to have foared fo
far above the Reach of all other Writers, as in thofe
Inftances, where he feems purpofely to have tranf-
grefTed the Laws of Criticifm. He appears to have
difdained to put his free Soul into Circumfcription and
Confine^ which denied his extraordinary Talents their
full Play, nor gave Scope to the Boundlefnefs of his
Imagination. His Witches, Ghofts, Fairies, and
other imaginary Beings, fcattered through his Plays,
are fo many glaring Violations of the common Table
of Dramatick Laws. What then fliall we fay ? Shall
we confefs their Force and Power over the Soul, fhall
we allow them to be Beauties of the mod exquifite
Kind, and yet infiil on their being expunged ? And
why ? except it be to reduce the Fhghts of an ex-
alted Genius, by fixing the Standard of Excellence
on the Pra(51:ice of inferior V/riters, who wanted
Parts to execute fuch great Defigns •, or to accom-
modate them to the narrow Ideas of fmall Criticks,
who want Souls large enough to comprehend them ?
Our Old Writers thought no Perfonage whatever,
unworthy a Place in the Drama, to v/hich they could
annex what may be called a Seity •, thut is, to which
they could allot Manners and Employment peculiar
to itfelf. The fevereil of the Anrients cannot be
more eminent for the conftant Prefervation of Uni-
formity of Chara6ler, than Shakeypeare^ and Shake-
fpeare^ in no Inftance, fupports his Chara6lers with
m.ore Exa6lnefs, than in the Condu6l of his ideal
Beings. The Ghoft in Hamlet is a lliining Proof of
this Excellence.

But, in confequence of the Cuflom of tracing the
Events of a Play minutely from a Novel, the Au-
thors were fometimes led to reprefent a mere human
CreaHire in Circumfbances not quite confonant to
Nature, of a Difpofition rather wild and extravagant,
and in both Cafes more efpccially repugnant to mo-
dern Ideas. This indeed required particular Indul-


[ -9 ]
gence ftom the Speddtor, but it was an Indulgence^
which feldom miiled of being amply repaid. Let
the Writer but once be allowed, as a neceiiary Da-
tum, the Pollibility of any Charader's being placed
in fuch a Situation, or pofTeib of fo peculiar a Turn
of Mind, the Behaviour of the Character is perjx^aiy
natural. Sbakefpeare, though the Child of Fancy^
feldom or never dreft up a common Mortal in any
other than the modeil: Drefs of Nature : But many
fliining Characters in the Plays of Beaumont and
Fletcher are not fo well grounded on the Principles of
the human Heart ; and yet, as they were fupportecJ
with Spirit, they were reeeived with Applaufe. Shy-
lock'i Contraft, with the Penalty of the Pound of
Fleih, though x\ox, Shakefpcan'%.o^x\¥\di\Qx\^ is per-
haps rather miprcbable ♦, at lead it would not be re-
o-arded as a happy Dramatick Incident in a modern
Play, and yet, having once taken it for "granted^
how beautifully, nay, how natiiraUy^ is the Characleir
fuftained! — Even this Objedion therefore, of a^De-
viation from Nature, great as it may feem., will be
found to be a Plea inf-uliicienr to excule the total Ex-
clufion of our antient Dramatifts'from the Theatre.
Shakefpeare, you will readily allow, poifeft Beauties
more than neceOTary to redeem his Faults ; Beauties,
that excite our Admiration, and obhterate his Errors.
True. But did no Portion of that divine Spirit fall
to the Share of our other Old Writers ? And can their
Works be fupprefled, or concealed, without Injullice
to their Merit ?

One of the beft and moft pleaHng Plays in Maffinger^
and which, we are told, was originally received wicli
general Approbation, is called, "Ihe Picture. The
Fiction, whence it takes its Title, and on which the
Story of the Play is grounded, may be collected from
the following fhort Scene. Mathias, a Gentleman of
Bohemia, having taken an afiecling Leave of his Wire
Hothia, with a Refolution oi' il-rving in ti>e King of

C llungarf^

Hungary^ Army againil the 'Turks^ is left alone on the
Stage, and the Play goes on, as follows.

Math. I am ftrangely troubled : Yet whyfhouldl nourifh
A Fury here, and with imagin'd Food ?
Having no real Grounds on which to raife
A Building of Sufpicion fhe ever was.
Or can be falfe hereafter ? I in this
But fooliihly inquire the Knowledge of
A future Sorrow, which, if 1 find out.
My prefent Ignorance were a cheap Purchafc,
Though with my Lofs of Being. 1 have already
Dealt with a Friend of mine, a general Scholar,
One deeply read in Nature's hidden Secrets,
And (though with much Unwillingnefs) have v/on him
Xo do as much as Art can to refolve me
My Fate that follows — To my Wifh he's come.

Enter Baptifta.

yuUo Baptlfla^ now I may affirm
Your Promife and Performance \yalk together ;
And therefore, without Circumftance, to the Point,
Inftru6l me what I am.

Bapt. I could wifh you had
Made Trial of my Love fome other Way.

Math. Nay, this is from the Purpofe.

Bapt. If you can.
Proportion your Defire to any Mean,
I do pronounce you happy : 1 have found,
By certain Pvules of Art, your matchlefs Wife
Is to this prefent Hour from all Pollution
Free and untainted.

Math. Good.

Bapt. In reafon therefore
You fliould fix here, and make no farther Search
Of what may fall hereafter.

Math. O Baptijia!
'Tis not in mc to maftcr fo my Paffions 3
I muft know farther, or you have made good
But half your Promife. — While my Love itood by,
Holding her upright, and my Prefence was
A Watch upon her, her Defires being met too
With equal Ardour from me, what one Proof
'Could iS\^ give of her Confi:ancy, being untcmptcd ?


r II ]

But when I am abfent, and my coming back
Uncertain, and thofe wanton Heats in Women
Not to be quench'd by lawful Means, and Ine
The abfolute Difpofer of herfelf,
Without Controul or Curb ; nay more, invited
By Opportunity and all ftrong Temptations,
If then fhe hold out

Bapt, As no doubt fhe will.

Math, Thofe Doubts mufl be made Certainties, Baptijla^
By your AlTurance, or your boafted Art

Deferves no Admiration. How you trifle - >

And play with my Affli6lion ! I'm on
The Rack, till you confirm me.

Bapt. Sure, Mathias^
I am no God, nor can I dive into
Her hidden Thoughts, or know what her Intents are ;
That is deny'd to Art, and kept conceal'd
E'en from the Devils themfelves : They can but guefs.
Out of long Obfervation, what is likely ;

But pofitlvely to foretel that this fhall be, • "

You may conclude impoffible ; all I can
I will do for you. When you are diftant from her
A thoufand Leagues, as if you then vt-ere with herj^
You fliall know truly when fhe is folicited.
And how far wrought pn.

Math. I defire no more.

Bapt. Take then this little Model of Sophia,
With more than human Skill limn'd to the Life 5
Each Line and Lineament of it in the Drawing
So punctually obferv'd, that, had it Motion,
In fo much 'twere herfelf.

Math. It is, indeed.
An admirable Piece ; but if it have not
Som.e hidden Virtue that I cannot guefs at.
In what can it advantage me?

Bapt. I'll inftrua you.
Carry it ftill about you, and as oft
As you defire to know how fhe's afFe^ed,
With curious Eyes perufe it : While it keeps
The Figure it now has, entire and perfedl.
She is not only innocent in Fact, ,

But unattempted ; but if once it vary
From the true Form, and what's now White and Pved:
Incline to Yellow, reft moft confident
She's With all Violence courted, but unconquer'd.
But if it turn all Black, 'tis an AfRirance

C 2 le

[ J2 ]

The Fort, by Compofition or Surprize,

Is fofc'd, or with her irt^ Confciit, lurrender'd.

Nothing can be more fantaftick, or more In the
extravagant Strain of the L*alian Novels, than this
Fifticn : And yet the Play, raifed on it. is extremely
beautiful, abounds with affecting Situations, true
Chnra(5ler5 and a faithful Reprefentation of Nature.
The Story, thus opened, proceeds as follows. Ma-
tb;as departs, accompanied by his Friend, and ferves
as a Volunteer in the Hungaria:i Army againft the
"Tvj'ks. A complete Victory being obtained, chiefly
by Means of his Valour, he is brought by the Ge-
neral to the Hungarian Court, where he not only re-
ceives many Konours from the King, but captivates
the Heart of the Queen ; whofe Pafilon is not fo
much' excited by his known Valour or perfonal At-
iraclions, as by his avowed Coojftancy to his Wife,
and his firm AfTurance of her reciprocal Affe

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Online LibraryGeorge ColmanCritical reflections on the old English dramatick writers; : intended as a preface to the works of Massinger. → online text (page 1 of 3)