Joanna Baillie.

The complete poetical works of Joanna Baillie online

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of that spirit which naturally opposes an ene-
my, and still hopes to overcome while the
slightest probability remains of success, has of-
ten before, in imagination at least, been in a
similar predicament, and is consequently bet-
ter prepared for it. But it is not want of
fortitude to bear bodily sufferings, or even de-
liberately inflicted deatli, under the circum-
stances commonly attending it, that the char-
acter of Osterloo exhibits. It is the horror
he conceives on being suddenly awakened to
the imagination of the awful retributions of
another world, from having the firm behef of
them forced at once upon his mind by extra-
ordinary circumstances, which so miserably
quells an otherwise undaunted spirit. I only
contend for the consistency of brave men
shrinking from passive sufferings and un-
known change, to shew, that so far from
transgressing, I have, in this character, kept
much within the bounds which our experi-
ence of human nature would have allowed me.
If I am tediously anxious to vindicate myself
on this subject, let my reader consider, that 1
am urged to it from the experience I have
had of the great reluctance with which peo-
ple generally receive characters which are
not drawn agreeably to the received rules of
dramatic dignity, and common-place heroism.
It may be objected tliat the fear of Death is
in him so closely connected with Supersti-
tious Fear, that the picture traced in this play
bears too near a resemblance to that which is
shewn in the foregoing. But the fears of
Orra have nothing to Jo v/ith .apprehension
of personal danger, and spring solely from a
natural horror of supernatural intercourse :
while those of Osterloo arise, as I have al-
ready noticed, from a strong sense of guilt,
suddenly roused within him by extraordinary
circumstances ; and the prospect of being
plunged, almost immediately by death, into
an unknown state of punishment and horror.



Not knowing by what natural means hist
guilt cpuld be brought to light, in a manner
so extraon'inary, a mind the least supersti-
tious, in those days, perhaps I may even say in
these, would have considered it to be super-
natural ; and the dreadful consequences, so
immediately linked to it, are surely sufP.cient-'
]y strong to unhinge the firmest mind, having
no time allowed to prepare itself for the tre-
mendous change. , If there is any person,
who, under such circumstances, could have
remained unappalled, he docs not belong to
that class of men, who, commanding thef
fleets and armies of their grateful and admir-
ing country, dare every thnig by flood and by
field tiiat is dangerous and terrific for her
sake ; but to one far different, whom hard
drinking, opium, or impiety have sunk inta
a state of unmanly and brutish stupidity. It
will probably be supposed that I have carried
the consequences of his passion too far in the
catastrophe to be considered as natural ; but
the only circumstance in the piece that is not
entirely invention, is the catastrophe. The
idea of it I received from a story told to me
by my mother, many years ago, of a man
condemned to lire block, who died in the
same manner ; and since the play has been
written, I have had the satisfaction of finding
it confirmed by a circumstance very similar,
related in Miss Plumtre's interesting account
of the atrocities committed in Lions by the
revolutionary tribunals.*

The story of the piece is imaginary, though
one of its principal circumstances, by a coinci-'
dence somewhat whimsical, I found after it
was written to agree with real history. Ir/
looking over Planta's History of Switzerland,
I found that a violent pestilence, about the
time when I have supposed it to happen, did
actually carry off great multitudes of people
in that counCry.t Had it been a real story,
handed down by tradition, the circumstances
of which were believed to be miraculous, I
should have allowed it to remain so ; but not
thinking myself entitled to assume so much,
I have attempted to trace a natural connection
from association of ideas, by which one thing

* Plumtre's Residence in France, vol. i. p. 339.

t A plague raged in Switzerland in 134y. It'
was preceded by terrible earthquakes ; about a
tliird part of the iilhabitantsWere destroyed.

The monastery of St. Maurice, where the story
of the play is supposed to have happened, is situ-
ated in a narrow pass between lolly precipices,
where the Rhone gushes from the Valais. The
founder was Segismond, King of Burgundy. It
was richly endowed ; the monks at one period
leading very luxurious lives, hunting and keeping
hounds, itc. It was dedicated to St. Maurice
and his companions, the holy martyrs of the The-
ban Legion.

Many of the abbots and priors in Switzerland
Were, in those days, feudal lords of the empire,
and maintained troops of their own. Even some
of the abbesses, presiding over convents of nuns,
were possessed of the same power and privilege.



TO THE READER.



produces another, or is insinuated to have
done so from beginning to end. The only
circumstance that cannot be accounted for on
this principle, is the falling of the lot to the
guilty hand ; aiKl this nmst be conceded to me
as a providential direction, or happy coinci-
.dence.

Contrary to our established laws of Trage-
dy, tliis Play consi&'.3 only of three acts, and
is written in prose. I have made it short, be-
cause I was unwilling to mix any lighter
matter with a subject so solemn ; and in ex-
tending it to the usual length without doing
.so, it would have been in danger of becoming
monotonous and harassing. I have written
it in prose, that the expressions of the agitat-
ed person might be plain though strong, and
kept as closely as possible to tiie simplicity of
■nature. Such a subject would, I believe,
have been weakened, not enriched, by poeti-
cal embellislunent. Whether I am right or
wrong in this opinion, I assure my reader it
•has not been indolence that has tempted me
■to depart from common rules.

A Comedy on Fear, the chief character be-
ing a man, is not liable to the objections I
have supposed might be made to a Tragedy
under the same circumstances. But a verv
great degree of constitutional cowardice
would have been a picture too humiliating to
afford any amusement, or even to engage the
attention for any considerable time. The
hero of my third Play, tlierefore, is represent-
ed as timid indeed, and endeavouring to con-
ceal it by a boastful affectation of gallantry
and courage ; but at the same time, worked
upon by artful contrivances to believe him-
eelf in such a situation as would have miser-
ably overcome many a one, who, on ordinary
occasions of danger, would have behaved with
decorum. Cowardice in him has been culti-
vated by indulgence of every kind : and self-
conceit and selfishness are tlie leading traits
of his character, which might have been
orginally trained to useful and honourable
activity. Fear, in a mixed character of this
kind, is, I apprehend, a very good subject for
Comedy, and in abler hands would certainly
have proved itself to be so.

The last Play in the volume is a drama of
two acts, the subjectof which is Hope. This
passion, when it acts permanently, loses the
character of a passion, and when it acts vio-
lently is like Anger, Joy, or Grief, too transi-
ent to become the subject of a piece of any
length. It seemed to me, in fact, neither fit
for Tragedy nor Comedy ; and like Anger,
Joy, or Grief, I once thought to have lell it
out of my Series altogether. However, what
it v/anted in strength it seemed to have in
grace ; and being of a noble, kindly and en-
gaging nature, it drev/ me to itself; and I
resolved to do every thing for it that 1 could,
in spite of the objections which had at first
deterred me. The piece is very short, and
can neither be called Tragedy nor Comedy.
It may indeed appear, for a passion so much



allied to all our cheerful and ejihilarating
thoughts, to approach too nearly to the for-
mer ; but Hope, vvlien its object is of great
importance, nmst so often contend with des-
pondenc}', that it rides like a vessel on the
stormy ocean, rising on the billow's ridge but
for a moment. Cheerfulness, the character
of common Hope, is, in strong Hope, like
glimpses of sun-shine in a cloudy sky.

As this passion, thougli more pleasing, is
not so pov/erfully interesting as those that are
more turbulent, and was therefore in danger
of becoming languid and tiresome, if long
dwelt upon without interruption ; and at tho
same time of being sunk into shade or entire-
ly overpowered, if relieved from it by variety
of strong marked characters in the inferior
persons of the drama. I have introduced into
tiie scenes several songs. So many indeed,
that 1 have ventured to call it a Musical
Drama. 1 have, however, avoided one fault
so common, 1 m.ight say universal, in such
pieces, viz. making people sing in situations
in which it is not natural for them to do so :
and creating a necessity for either having the
first characters performed by these, who can
both act and sing, (persons very difficult to
find,) or permitting ti;em to be made entirely
insipid and absurd. For this purpose, the
songs are all sung by those who have little or
nothing to act, and introduced when nothing
very interesting is going on. They are also
supposed not to be spontaneous expressions
of sentiment in the singer, but (as songs in
ordinary life usually are) compositions of
other people, which have been often sung be-
fore, and are only generally applicable to the
present occasion.

The story is imaginary, but I have endea-
voured to make it, as far as my information
enabled me, to correspond with the circum-
stances of the time and place in which it is
supposed to have happened.

Having said all that appears to me necessa^
ry in regard to tlis contents of the volume, I
should now leave my reader to peruse it with-
out further hindrance; but as this will pro-
bably be the last volume of Plays I shall ever
publish, I must beg to detain him a few mo-
ments longer. For I am inclined to think,
he may have some curiosity to know what is
the extent of my plan in a task I have so far
fulfilled; and I shall satisfy it most cheerful-
ly. It is my intention, if I live long enough,
to add to this work the passions of Remorse,
Jealousy, and Revenge. Joy, Grief, and An-
ger, as I have already said, are generally of
too transient a nature, and are too frequentlj''
the attendants of all our other passions to be
made ihe subjects of an entire play. And
though this objection cannot he urged in re-
gard to Pride and Envy, two powerful pas-
sions Vi'hich I have not yet named ; Pride
would make, I should think, a dull subject,
unless it were merely taken as the ground-,
work of more turbulent passions ; and Envy,
being that state of mind, which, of all others^



336



TO THE READER.



meets witli least sympathy, could only be en-
dured in Comedy or I'aree, and would become
altogether disgusting in Tragedy. I have be-
sides, in some degree, introduced this latter
passion into the work already, by making it a
companion, or rather a component part of"
Hatred. Of all our passions, Remorse and
Jealousy appear to me to be tho best fitted
for representation. If this be tiie case, it is
fortunate for me that 1 have reserved them
for tlie end of my task ; and that they have
not been already published, read, and very
naturally laid aside as unlit for the stage, be-
cause they have not been produced upon it.

My reader may likewise wish to know why,
having so many years ago promised to go on
publishing this work, I sliould now intend to
leave it off, though I still mean to continue
writing till it shall be completed ; and this
supposed wish, 1 think myself bound to gra-
tify. — The Series of Plays was originally pub-
lished in the hope that some of the pieces it
contains, although first given to the Public
from tfie press, might in time make their way
to the stage, and there be received and sup-
ported with some degree of public favour.
But the present situation of dramatic afiairs
is greatly against every hope of this kind;
and should they ever become more favourable,
I have now good reason to believe, that the
circumstance of these plays having been
already published, would operate strongly
against their being received upon the stage.
1 am therefore strongly of opinion that I ought
io reserve the remainder of the work in man-
uscript, if I would not run the risk of entirely
frustrating my original design. Did I believe
that their iiaving been already published
would not afterwards obstruct their way to
the stage, tiie untowardness of present cir-
cumstances should not prevent me from con-
tinuing to publish.

Having thus given an account of my views
and intentions regarding this work, I hope
that, should no more of it be published in my
lifetime, it will not be supposed I have aban-
doned or become weary of my occupation ;
which is in truth as interesting and pleasing
to me now as it was at the beginning.

But when I say, present circumstances are
unfavourable for the reception of these Plays
upon the stage, let it not be supposed that I
mean to throw any reflection upon the prevail-
ing taste for dramatic amusements. The pub-
lic have now to choose between what we shall
suppose are well-written and well-acted Plays,
the words of which are not heard, or heard but
imperfectly by two thirds of the audience,
while the finer and more pleasing traits of the
acting are by a still greater proportion lost al-
together, and splendid pantomime, or pieces
whose chief object is to produce striking scenic
effect, which can be seen and comprehended
by the whole. So situated, it would argue,
methinks, a very pedantic love indeed, for
what is called legitimate Drama, were we to
prefer the fornjer. A love for active, varied



movement in the objects before us ; for strik-
ing contrasts of light and shadow ; for splendid
decorations and magnificent scenery, is as in-
herent in us as the interest we take in the
representation of the natural passions and
characters of men : and the most cultivated
minds may relish such exhibitions, if they do
not, when both are fairly offered to their
choice, prefer them. Did our ears and our
eyes permit us to hear and see distinctly in
a Theatre so large as to admit of chariots and
horsemen, and all the " pomp and circum-
stance of war," I see no reason why we should
reject them. They would give variety, and
an appearance of truth to the scenes of heroic
Tragedy, that would very much heighten its
effect. We ought not, then, to find fault with
the taste of the Public for preferring an in-
ferior species of entertainment, good of its
kind, to a superior one, faintly and imperfectly
given.

It has been urged, as a proof of this sup-
posed bad taste in the Public, by one whose
judgment on these subjects is and ought to
be high authority, that a play, possessing con-
siderable merit, was produced some years ago
on Drury-Lane stage, and notwithstanding
the great support it received from excellent
acting and magnificent decoration, entirely
failed. It is very true that, in spite of all this,
it failed, during the eight nights it continued
to be acted, to produce houses sufiiciently
good to induce the Managers to revive it af-
terwards. But it ought to be acknowledged,
that that piece had defects in it as an acting
Play, which served to counterbalance those
advantages ; and likewise that, if an}' sup-
posed merit in tlie writing ought to have re-
deemed those defects, in a theatre, so large
and so ill calculated to convey sound as the
one in which it was performed, it was impos-
sible this could be felt or comprehended by
even a third part of the audience.

The size of our theatres, then, is what I
chiefly allude to, when I say, present circum-
stances are unfavourable for the production of
these Plays. While they continue to be of
this size, it is a vain thing to complain either
of want of taste in the Public, or want of in-
clination in Managers to bring forward new
pieces of merit, taking it for granted that
there are such to produce. Nothing can be
truly relished by the most cultivated audience
that is not distinctly heard and seen, and
Managers mustprodupe what will be relished.
Shakspeare's Plays, and some of our other
old Plays, indeed, attract full houses, though
they are often repeated, because, being famil-
iar to the audience, they can still understand
and follow them pretty closely, though but
imperfectly heard ; and surely this is no bad
sign of our public taste. And besides this
advanta<re, when a piece is familiar to the au-
dience the expression of the actors' faces is
much better understood, though seen imper-
fectly ; for the stronger marked traits of feel-
ing which even in a large theatre may reach



TO THE READER.



337



the eyes of a great part of the audience, from
the recollection of finer and more delicate in-
dications, formerly seen so delightfully min-
gled with them in the same countenances
during the same passages of the Play, will,
by association, still convey them to the mind's
eye, though it is the mind's eye only which
they have reached.

And this thought leads me to another de-
fect in large theatres, that ought to be consid-
ered.

Our great tragic actress, Mrs. Siddons,
whose matchless powers of expression have
so long been the pride of our stage, and the
most admired actors of the present time, have
been brought up in their youth in small thea-
tres, where they were encouraged to enter
thoroughly into the characters they represent-
ed ; and to express in their faces that variety
of fine fleeting emotion which nature, in mo-
ments of agitation, assumes, and the imitation
of which we are taught by nature to delight
in. But succeeding actors will only consider
expression of countenance as addressed to an
audience removed from them to a greater dis-
tance ; and will only attempt such strong ex-
pression as can be perceived and have effect
at a distance. It may easily be imagined
what exaggerated expression will then get
into use ; and I should think, even this strong
expression will not only be exaggerated but
false. For, as we are enabled to assume the
outward signs of passion, not by mimicking
what we have beheld in others, but by inter-
nally assuming, in some degree, the passion
itself; a mere outline of it cannot, 1 appre-
hend, be given as an outline of figure fre-
quently is, where all that is delineated is true
though the whole is not filled up. Nay, be-
sides having it exaggerated and false, it will
perpetually be thrust in where it ought not to
be. For real occasions of strong expression
not occurring often enough, and weaker being
of no avail, to avoid an apparent barrenness
of countenance, they will be tempted to in-
troduce it where it is not wanted, and thereby
destroy its effect where it is. — I say nothinsf
of expression of voice, to which the above ob-
servations obviously apply. This will become
equally, if not in a greater degree, false and
exaggerated, in actors trained from their youth
in a large theatre.

But the department of acting that will suf-
fer most under these circumstances, is that
which particularly regards the gradually un-
folding of the passions, and has, perhaps, hith-
erto been less understood than any other part
of the art — I mean Soliloquy . What actor in
his senses will then think of giving to the sol-
itary musing of a perturbed mind that mut-
tered, imperfect articulation which grows by
degrees into words ; that heavy, suppressed
voice as of one speaking through sleep ; that
rapid burst of sounds which often succeeds
the slow languid tones of distress ; those sud-
den, untuned exclamations which, as if fright-
ened at their own discord, are struck again



into silence as sudden and abrupt, with all
the corresponding variety of countenance that
belonors to it ; — what actor, so situated, will
attempt to exhibit all this ? No ; he will be
satisfied, after taking a turn or two across the
front of the stage, to place himself directly in
the middle of it ; and there, spreading out his
hands as if he were addressing some person
whom it behoved him to treat with great cere-
mony, to tell to himself, in an audible uniform
voice, all the secret thoughts of his own heart.
When he has done this, he will think, and he
will think rightly, that Jie has done enough.

The only valuable part of acting that will
then remain to us, will be expression of ges-
ture, grace and dignity, supposing that these
also shall not become affected by being too
much attended to and studied.

It may be urged against such apprehen-
sions that, though the theatres of the metrop-
olis should be large, they will be supplied
with actors, who have been trained to the
stage in small country-theatres. An actor of
ambition (and all actors of genius are such)
will practise with little heart in the country
what he knows will be of no use to him on a
London stage ; not to mention that the style
of acting in London will naturally be the fash-
ionable and prevailing style elsewhere. Act-
ing will become a less respectable profession
than it has continued to be from the days of
Garrick ; and the few actors, who add to the
natural advantages requisite to it, the accom-
plishments of a scholar and a gentleman, will
soon be wed away by the hand of time, leav-
intr nothing of the same species behind them
to spring from a neglected and sapless root.

All I have said on this subject, may still in
a greater degree be applied to actresses ; for
the features and voice of a woman, being na-
turally more delicate than those of a man, she
must suffer in proportion from the defects of
a large theatre.

The great disadvantage of such over-sized
buildings to natural and genuine acting, is, I
believe, very obvious ; but they have other
defects which are not so readily noticed, be-
cause they, in some degree, run counter to the
common opinion of their great superiority in
every thing that regards general effect. The
diminutive appearance of individual figures,
and the straggling poverty of grouping, which
unavoidably takes place when a very wide and
lofty stage is not filled by a great number of
people, is very injurious to general effect.
This is particularly felt in Comedy, and all
plays on domestic subjects; and in those
scenes also of the grand drama, where two or
three persons only are produced at a time.
To give figures who move upon it proper ef-
fect, there must be depth as well as width of
stage ; and the one must bear some propor-
tion to the other, if we would not make every
closer or more confined scene appear like a
section of a long passage, in which the actors
move before us, apparently in one line, like
the figures of a magic lanthorn.



33a



TO THE READER.



It appears to me, that when a stage is of such
a size that as many persons as generally come
into action at one time in our grandest and
best-peopled plays, can be produced on the
front of it in groups, without crowding to-
gether more than tiiey would naturally do
any where else for the convenience of speak-
ing to one another, all is gained in point of
general effect that can well be gained. When
modern gentlemen and ladies talk to one
another in a spacious saloon, or when ancient
warriors and dames conversed together in an
old baronial hall, they do not, and did not
stand further apail than when conversing in
a room of common dimensions ; neither ouo-lit
they to do so on the stage. All width of stage,
beyond wiiat is convenient for such natural
grouping, is lost ; and worse than lost, for it
is injurious. It is continually presenting us
with something similar to that which always
offends us in a picture, where the canvas is
too large for the subject; or in a face, where
the features are too small for the bald margin
of cheeks and forehead that surrounds them.

Even in the scenes of professed show and
spectacle, where nothing else is considered, it
appears to me that a very large stage is in
some degree injurious to general effect. Even
when a battle is represented in our theatres,
the great width of the stage is a disadvantage ;
for as it never can nor ought to be represent-
ed but partially, and the part which is seen
should be crowded and confused, opening a
large front betrays your want of numbers ; or
should you be rich enough in this respect to
fill it sufficiently, imposes upon you a difficul-
ty seldom surmounted, viz. putting the whole



Online LibraryJoanna BaillieThe complete poetical works of Joanna Baillie → online text (page 64 of 107)