An English Garner Critical Essays & Literary Fragments online

. (page 8 of 31)
Online LibraryUnknownAn English Garner Critical Essays & Literary Fragments → online text (page 8 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

LISIDEIUS, after some modest denials, at last, confessed he had a rude
notion of it; indeed, rather a Description than a Definition; but which
served to guide him in his private thoughts, when he was to make a
judgment of what others writ. That he conceived a Play ought to be A JUST

This Definition, though CRITES raised a logical objection against it
(that "it was only _a genere et fine_," and so not altogether perfect),
was yet well received by the rest.

And, after they had given order to the watermen to turn their barge, and
row softly, that they might take the cool of the evening in their return:
CRITES, being desired by the company to begin, spoke on behalf of the
Ancients, in this manner.

"If confidence presage a victory; EUGENIUS, in his own opinion, has
already triumphed over the Ancients. Nothing seems more easy to him, than
to overcome those whom it is our greatest praise to have imitated well:
for we do not only build upon their foundation, but by their models.

"Dramatic Poesy had time enough, reckoning from THESPIS who first
invented it, to ARISTOPHANES; to be born, to grow up, and to flourish in

"_It has been observed of Arts and Sciences, that in one and the same
century, they have arrived to a great perfection_ [p. 520]. And, no
wonder! since every Age has a kind of Universal Genius, which inclines
those that live in it to some particular studies. The work then being
pushed on by many hands, must, of necessity, go forward.

"Is it not evident, in these last hundred years, when the study of
Philosophy has been the business of all the _Virtuosi_ in Christendom,
that almost a new Nature has been revealed to us? that more errors of the
School have been detected, more useful experiments in Philosophy have been
made, more noble secrets in Optics, Medicine, Anatomy, Astronomy,
discovered; than, in all those credulous and doting Ages, from ARISTOTLE
to us [p. 520]? So true it is, that nothing spreads more fast than
Science, when rightly and generally cultivated.

"Add to this, _the more than common Emulation that was, in those times,
of writing well_: which, though it be found in all Ages and all persons
that pretend to the same reputation: yet _Poesy, being then in more
esteem than now it is, had greater honours decreed to the Professors of
it, and consequently the rivalship was more high between them_. They had
Judges ordained to decide their merit, and prizes to reward it: and
historians have been diligent to record of AESCHYLUS, EURIPIDES,
SOPHOCLES, LYCOPHRON, and the rest of them, both who they were that
vanquished in these Wars of the Theatre, and how often they were crowned:
while the Asian Kings and Grecian Commonwealths scarce[ly] afforded them a
nobler subject than the unmanly luxuries of a debauched Court, or giddy
intrigues of a factious city. _Alit oemulatio ingenia_, says PATERCULUS,
_et nunc invidia, nunc admiratio incitationem accendit_: 'Emulation is
the spur of wit; and sometimes envy, sometimes admiration quickens our

"But now, since the rewards of honour are taken away: that Virtuous
Emulation is turned into direct Malice; yet so slothful, that it contents
itself to condemn and cry down others, without attempting to do better.
'Tis a reputation too unprofitable, to take the necessary pains for it;
yet wishing they had it, is incitement enough to hinder others from it.
And this, in short, EUGENIUS, is the reason why you have now so few good
poets, and so many severe judges. Certainly, to imitate the Ancients
well, much labour and long study is required: which pains, I have already
shown, our poets would want encouragement to take; if yet they had ability
to go through with it.

"Those Ancients have been faithful Imitators and wise Observers of that
Nature, which is so torn and ill-represented in our Plays. They have
handed down to us a perfect Resemblance of Her, which we, like ill
copyers, _neglecting to look on_, have rendered monstrous and disfigured.

"But that you may know, how much you are indebted to your Masters! and be
ashamed to have so ill-requited them! I must remember you, that all the
Rules by which we practise the Drama at this day (either such as relate
to the Justness and Symmetry of the Plot; or the episodical ornaments,
such as Descriptions, Narrations, and other beauties which are not
essential to the play), were delivered to us from the Observations that
ARISTOTLE made of those Poets, which either lived before him, or were his
contemporaries. We have added nothing of our own, except we have the
confidence to say, 'Our wit is better!' which none boast of in our Age,
but such as understand not theirs. Of that book, which ARISTOTLE has left
us, [Greek: peri taes Poietikaes]; HORACE his _Art of Poetry_ is an
excellent _Comment_, and, I believe, restores to us, that Second Book of
his [_i.e., ARISTOTLE_] concerning _Comedy_, which is wanting in him.

"Out of these two [Authors], have been extracted the Famous Rules, which
the French call, _Des trois Unités_, or 'The Three Unities,' which ought
to be observed in every _regular_ Play; namely, of TIME, PLACE, and

"The UNITY OF TIME, they comprehend in Twenty-four hours, _the compass of
a natural Day_; or, as near it, as can be contrived. And the reason of it
is obvious to every one. That _the Time_ of the feigned Action or Fable
of the Play _should be proportioned_, as near as can be, _to the duration
of that Time in which it is REPRESENTED_. Since therefore all plays are
acted on the Theatre in a space of time _much within_ the compass of
Twenty-four hours; that Play is to be thought the _nearest Imitation_ of
Nature, whose Plot or Action is confined within that time.

"And, by the same Rule which concludes this General Proportion of Time,
it follows, _That all the parts of it are to be equally subdivided_. As,
namely, that one Act take not up the supposed time of Half a day, which
is out of proportion to the rest; since the other four are then to be
straitened within the compass of the remaining half: for it is unnatural
that one Act which, being spoken or written, is not longer than the rest;
should be supposed longer by the audience. 'Tis therefore the Poet's duty
to take care _that no Act_ should be imagined to _exceed the Time in
which it is Represented on the Stage_; and that the intervals and
inequalities of time, be supposed to fall out _between_ the Acts.

"This Rule of TIME, how well it has been observed by the Ancients, most
of their plays will witness. You see them, in their Tragedies (wherein to
follow this Rule is certainly most difficult), from the very beginning of
their Plays, falling close into that part of the Story, which they intend
for the Action or principal Object of it: leaving the former part to be
delivered by Narration. So that they set the audience, as it were, at the
post where the race is to be concluded: and, saving them the tedious
expectation of seeing the Poet set out and ride the beginning of the
course; you behold him not, till he is in sight of the goal, and just
upon you.

"For the Second Unity, which is that of PLACE; the Ancients meant by it,
_That the scene_ [locality] _ought to be continued_, through the Play,
_in the same place, where it was laid in the beginning_. For _the Stage_,
on which it is represented, _being but one, and the same place; it
isunnatural to conceive it many, and those far distant from one another_.
I will not deny but by the Variation of Painted scenes [_scenery was
introduced about this time into the English theatres, by Sir WILLIAM
D'AVENANT and BETTERTON the Actor: see Vol. II. p. 278_] the Fancy which,
in these casts, will contribute to its own deceit, may sometimes imagine
it several places, upon some appearance of probability: yet it still
carries _the greater likelihood of truth_, if those places be supposed so
near each other as in the same town or city, which may all be comprehended
under the larger denomination of One Place; for a greater distance will
bear no proportion to the _shortness of time which is allotted in the
acting_, to pass from one of them to another.

"For the observation of this; next to the Ancients, the French are most
to be commended. They tie themselves so strictly to the Unity of Place,
that you never see in any of their plays, a scene [_locality_] changed in
the middle of an Act. If the Act begins in a garden, a street, or [a]
chamber; 'tis ended in the same place. And that you may know it to be the
same, the Stage is so supplied with persons, that it is never empty all
the time. He that enters the second has business with him, who was on
before; and before the second quits the stage, a third appears, who has
business with him. This CORNEILLE calls _La Liaison des Scenes_,'the
Continuity or Joining of the Scenes': and it is a good mark of a well
contrived Play, when all the persons are known to each other, and every
one of them has some affairs with all the rest.

"As for the third Unity, which is that of ACTION, the Ancients meant no
other by it, than what the Logicians do by their _Finis_; the End or
Scope of any Action, that which is the First in intention, and Last in

"Now the Poet is to aim at _one great and complete Action_; to the
carrying on of which, all things in the Play, even the very obstacles,
are to be subservient. And the reason of this, is as evident as any of
the former. For two Actions, equally laboured and driven on by the
Writer, would destroy the Unity of the Poem. It would be no longer one
Play, but two. Not but that there may be many actions in a Play (as BEN.
JOHNSON has observed in his _Discoveries_), but they must be all
subservient to the great one; which our language happily expresses, in
the name of Under Plots. Such as, in TERENCE's _Eunuch_, is the deference
and reconcilement of _THAIS_ and _PHAEDRIA_; which is not the chief
business of the Play, but promotes the marriage of _CHOEREA_ and
_CHREMES's sister_, principally intended by the Poet.

"'There ought to be but one Action,' says CORNEILLE, 'that is, one
complete Action, which leaves the mind of the audience in a full repose.'
But this cannot be brought to pass, but by many other imperfect ones,
which conduce to it, and hold the audience in a delightful suspense of
what will be.

"If by these Rules (to omit many others drawn from the Precepts and
Practice of the Ancients), we should judge our modern plays, 'tis
probable that few of them would endure the trial. That which should be
the business of a Day, takes up, in some of them, an Age. Instead of One
Action, they are the Epitome of a man's life. And for one spot of ground,
which the Stage should represent; we are sometimes in more countries than
the map can show us.

"But if we will allow the Ancients to have _contrived_ well; we must
acknowledge them to have _writ_ better. Questionless, we are deprived of
a great stock of wit, in the loss of MENANDER among the Greek poets, and
of COECILIUS, AFFRANIUS, and VARIUS among the Romans. We may guess of
MENANDER's excellency by the Plays of TERENCE; who translated some of
his, and yet wanted so much of him, that he was called by C. CAESAR, the
Half-MENANDER: and of VARIUS, by the testimonies of HORACE, MARTIAL, and
VELLEIUS PATERCULUS. 'Tis probable that these, could they be recovered,
would decide the controversy.

"But so long as ARISTOPHANES in the Old Comedy, and PLAUTUS in the New
are extant; while the Tragedies of EURIPIDES, SOPHOCLES, and SENECA are
to be had: I can never see one of those Plays which are now written, but
it increases my admiration of the Ancients. And yet I must acknowledge
further, that to admire them as we ought, we should understand them
better than we do. Doubtless, many things appear flat to us, whose wit
depended upon some custom or story, which never came to our knowledge; or
perhaps upon some criticism in their language, which, being so long dead,
and only remaining in their books, it is not possible they should make us
know it perfectly.

"To read MACROBIUS explaining the propriety and elegancy of many words in
VIRGIL, which I had before passed over without consideration as common
things, is enough to assure me that I ought to think the same of TERENCE;
and that, in the purity of his style, which TULLY so much valued that he
ever carried his _Works_ about him, there is yet left in him great room
for admiration, if I knew but where to place it.

"In the meantime, I must desire you to take notice that the greatest man
of the last Age, BEN. JOHNSON, was willing to give place to them in all
things. He was not only a professed imitator of HORACE, but a learned
plagiary of all the others. You track him everywhere in their snow. If
HORACE, LUCAN, PETRONIUS _Arbiter_, SENECA, and JUVENAL had their own
from him; there are few serious thoughts that are new in him. You will
pardon me, therefore, if I presume, he loved their fashion; when he wore
their clothes.

"But since I have otherwise a great veneration for him, and you,
EUGENIUS! prefer him above all other poets: I will use no farther
argument to you than his example. I will produce Father BEN. to you,
dressed in all the ornaments and colours of the Ancients. You will need
no other guide to our party, if you follow him: and whether you consider
the bad plays of our Age, or regard the good ones of the last: both the
best and worst of the Modern poets will equally instruct you to esteem
the Ancients."

CRITES had no sooner left speaking; but EUGENIUS, who waited with some
impatience for it, thus began:

"I have observed in your speech, that the former part of it is
convincing, as to what the Moderns have profited by the Rules of the
Ancients: but, in the latter, you are careful to conceal, how much they
have excelled them.

"We own all the helps we have from them; and want neither veneration nor
gratitude, while we acknowledge that, to overcome them, we must make use
of all the advantages we have received from them. But to these
assistances, we have joined our own industry: for had we sate down with a
dull imitation of them; we might then have lost somewhat of the old
perfection, but never acquired any that was new. We draw not, therefore,
after their lines; but those of Nature: and having the Life before us,
besides the experience of all they knew, it is no wonder if we hit some
airs and features, which they have missed.

"I deny not what you urge of Arts and Sciences [p. 514]; that they have
flourished in some ages more than others: but your instance in Philosophy
[p. 514] makes for me.

"For if Natural Causes be more known now, than in the time of ARISTOTLE,
because more studied; it follows that Poesy and other Arts may, with the
same pains, arrive still nearer to perfection. And that granted, it will
rest for you to prove, that they wrought more perfect Images of Human
Life than we.

"Which, seeing, in your discourse, you have avoided to make good; it
shall now be my task to show you some of their Defects, and some few
Excellencies of the Moderns. And I think, there is none amongst us can
imagine I do it enviously; or with purpose to detract from them: for what
interest of Fame, or Profit, can the Living lose by the reputation of the
Dead? On the other side, it is a great truth, which VELLEIUS PATERCULUS
affirms, _Audita visis libentius laudamus; et proesentia invidia,
proeterita, admiratione prosequimur, et his nos obrui, illis instrui
credimus_, 'That Praise or Censure is certainly the most sincere, which
unbribed Posterity shall give us.'

"Be pleased, then, in the first place, to take notice that the Greek
Poesy, which CRITES has affirmed to have arrived to perfection in the
reign of the Old Comedy [p. 514], was so far from it, that _the
distinction of it into Acts was not known to them_; or if it were, it is
yet so darkly delivered to us, that we cannot make it out.

"All we know of it is, from the singing of their Chorus: and that too, is
so uncertain, that in some of their Plays, we have reason to conjecture
they sang more than five times.

"ARISTOTLE, indeed, divides the integral parts of a Play into four.

"Firstly. The _Protasis_ or Entrance, which gives light only to the
Characters of the persons; and proceeds very little into any part
of the Action.

"Secondly. The _Epitasis_ or Working up of the Plot, where the Play
grows warmer; the Design or Action of it is drawing on, and you see
something promising, that it will come to pass.

"Thirdly. The _Catastasis_ or Counter-turn, which destroys that
expectation, embroils the action in new difficulties, and leaves
you far distant from that hope in which it found you: as you may
have observed in a violent stream, resisted by a narrow passage; it
turns round to an eddy, and carries back the waters with more
swiftness than it brought them on.

"Lastly. The _Catastrophe_, which the Grecians call [Greek: desis];
the French, _Le denoument_; and we, the Discovery or Unravelling of
the Plot. There, you see all things settling again upon the first
foundations; and the obstacles, which hindered the Design or Action
of the Play, once removed, it ends with that Resemblance of Truth
or Nature, that the audience are satisfied with the conduct of it.

"Thus this great man delivered to us the Image of a Play; and I must
confess it is so lively, that, from thence, much light has been derived
to the forming it more perfectly, into Acts and Scenes. But what Poet
first limited to Five, the number of the Acts, I know not: only we see it
so firmly established in the time of HORACE, that he gives it for a rule
in Comedy.

"_Neu brevier quinto, neu sit productior actu:_

"So that you see, the Grecians cannot be said to have consumated this
Art: writing rather by Entrances than by Acts; and having rather a
general indigested notion of a Play, than knowing how and where to bestow
the particular graces of it.

"But since the Spaniards, at this day, allow but three Acts, which they
call _Jornadas_, to a Play; and the Italians, in many of theirs, follow
them: when I condemn the Ancients, I declare it _is not altogether
because they have not five Acts to every Play; but because they have not
confined themselves to one certain number_. 'Tis building a house,
without a model: and when they succeeded in such undertakings, they ought
to have sacrificed to Fortune, not to the Muses.

"Next, for the Plot, which ARISTOTLE called [Greek: to muthos], and often
[Greek: ton pragmaton sunthesis]; and from him, the Romans, _Fabula_. It
has already been judiciously observed by a late Writer that 'in their
_TRADGEDIES_, it was only some tale derived from Thebes or Troy; or, at
least, something that happened in those two Ages: which was worn so
threadbare by the pens of all the Epic Poets; and even, by tradition
itself of the _talkative Greeklings_, as BEN. JOHNSON calls them, that
before it came upon the Stage, it was already known to all the audience.
And the people, as soon as ever they heard the name of _OEDIPUS_, knew as
well as the Poet, that he had killed his father by a mistake, and
committed incest with his mother, before the Play; that they were now to
hear of a great plague, an oracle, and the ghost of _LAIUS_: so that they
sate, with a yawning kind of expectation, till he was to come, with his
eyes pulled out, and speak a hundred or two of verses, in a tragic tone,
in complaint of his misfortunes.'

"But one _OEDIPUS_, _HERCULES_, or _MEDEA_ had been tolerable. Poor
people! They scaped not so good cheap. They had still the _chapon
bouillé_ set before them, till their appetites were cloyed with the same
dish; and the Novelty being gone, the Pleasure vanished. So that one main
end of Dramatic Poesy, in its definition [p. 513] (which was, to cause
_Delight_) was, of consequence, destroyed.

"In their _COMEDIES_, the Romans generally borrowed their Plots from the
Greek poets: and theirs were commonly a little girl stolen or wandered
from her parents, brought back unknown to the same city, there got with
child by some lewd young fellow, who (by the help of his servant) cheats
his father. And when her time comes to cry _JUNO Lucina fer opem!_ one or
other sees a little box or cabinet, which was carried away with her, and
so discovers her to her friends: if some god do not prevent
[_anticipate_] it, by coming down in a machine [_i.e., supernaturally_],
and take the thanks of it to himself.

"By the Plot, you may guess much [_many_] of the characters of the
Persons. An old Father that would willingly, before he dies, see his son
well married. His debauched Son, kind in his nature to his wench, but
miserably in want of money. A Servant or Slave, who has so much wit [as]
to strike in with him, and help to dupe his father, A braggadochio
Captain, a Parasite, and a Lady of Pleasure.

"As for the poor honest maid, upon whom all the story is built, and who
ought to be one of the principal Actors in the Play; she is commonly a
Mute in it. She has the breeding of the old ELIZABETH [_Elizabethan_]
way, for 'maids to be seen, and not to be heard': and it is enough, you
know she is willing to be married, when the Fifth Act requires it.

"These are plots built after the Italian mode of houses. You see through
them all at once. The Characters, indeed, are Imitations of Nature: but
so narrow as if they had imitated only an eye or an hand, and did not
dare to venture on the lines of a face, or the proportion of a body.

"But in how strait a compass sorever, they have bounded their Plots and
Characters, we will pass it by, if they have regularly pursued them, and
perfectly observed those three Unities, of TIME, PLACE, and ACTION; the
knowledge of which, you say! is derived to us from them.

"But, in the first place, give me leave to tell you! that the Unity of
PLACE, however it might be practised by them, was never any of their
Rules. We neither find it in ARISTOTLE, HORACE, or any who have written
of it; till, in our Age, the French poets first made it a Precept of the

"The Unity of TIME, even TERENCE himself, who was the best and most
regular of them, has neglected. His _Heautontimoroumenos_ or 'Self
Punisher' takes up, visibly, two days. 'Therefore,' says SCALIGER, 'the
two first Acts concluding the first day, were acted overnight; the last
three on the ensuing day.'

"And EURIPIDES, in tying himself to one day, has committed an absurdity
never to be forgiven him. For, in one of his Tragedies, he has made
THESEUS go from Athens to Thebes, which was about forty English miles;
under the walls of it, to give battle; and appear victorious in the next
Act: and yet, from the time of his departure, to the return of the
_Nuntius_, who gives relation of his victory; _AETHRA_ and the _Chorus_
have but thirty-six verses, that is, not for every mile, a verse.

"The like error is evident in TERENCE his _Eunuch_; when _LACHES_ the old
man, enters, in a mistake, the house of _THAIS_; where, between his _Exit_
and the Entrance of _PYTHIAS_ (who comes to give an ample relation of the
garboils he has raised within), _PARMENO_ who was left upon the stage,
has not above five lines to speak. _C'est bien employé, un temps si
court!_ says the French poet, who furnished me with one of the[se]

"And almost all their Tragedies will afford us examples of the like

"'Tis true, they have kept the Continuity, or as you called it, _Liaison
des Scenes_, somewhat better. Two do not perpetually come in together,
talk, and go out together; and other two succeeded them, and do the same,
throughout the Act: which the English call by the name of 'Single Scenes.'
But the reason is, because they have seldom above two or three Scenes,
properly so called, in every Act. For it is to be accounted a _new_
Scene, not every time the Stage is empty: but every person _who enters_,
though to others, makes it so; because he introduces a new business.

"Now the Plots of their Plays being narrow, and the persons few: one of
their Acts was written in a less compass than one of our well-wrought
Scenes; and yet they are often deficient even in this.

"To go no further than TERENCE. You find in the _Eunuch_, _ANTIPHO_
entering, single, in the midst of the Third Act, after _CHREMES_ and
_PYTHIAS_ were gone off. In the same play, you have likewise _DORIAS_
beginning the Fourth Act alone; and after she has made a relation of what

Online LibraryUnknownAn English Garner Critical Essays & Literary Fragments → online text (page 8 of 31)