Page:EB1911 - Volume 08.djvu/552

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

upon it in the invective of Jeremy Collier[1] (1698), of all the assaults the theatre in England has had to undergo the best-founded, Sentimental comedy. and that which produced the most perceptible results. The comic poets, who had always been more or less conscious of their sins, and had at all events not defended them by the ingenious sophistries which it has pleased later literary criticism to suggest on their behalf, now began with uneasy merriment to allude in their prologues to the reformation which had come over the spirit of the town. Writers like Mrs Centlivre became anxious to reclaim their offenders with much emphasis in the fifth act; and Colley Cibber—whose Apology for his Life furnishes a useful view of this and the subsequent period of the history of the stage, with which he was connected as author, manager and actor (excelling in this capacity as representative of those fools with which he peopled the comic stage)[2]—may be credited with having first deliberately made the pathetic treatment of a moral sentiment the basis of the action of a comic drama. But he cannot be said to have consistently pursued the vein which in his Careless Husband (1704) he had essayed. His Non-Juror is a political adaptation of Tartuffe; and his almost equally celebrated Provoked Husband only supplied a happy ending to Vanbrugh’s unfinished play. Sir R. Steele, in accordance with his general tendencies as a writer, pursued a still more definite moral purpose in his comedies; but his genius perhaps lacked the sustained vigour necessary for a dramatist, and his humour naturally sought the aid of pathos. From partial[3] he passed to more complete[4] experiment; and thus these two writers, who transplanted to the comic stage a tendency towards the treatment of domestic themes noticeable in such writers of Restoration tragedy as Southerne and Rowe, became the founders of sentimental comedy, a species which exercised a most depressing influence upon the progress of English drama, and helped to hasten the decline of its comic branch. With Cato English tragedy committed suicide, though its pale ghost survived; with The Conscious Lovers English comedy sank for long into the tearful embraces of artificiality and weakness.

During the 18th century the productions of dramatic literature were still as a rule legitimately designed to meet the demands of the stage, from which its higher efforts afterwards to so large an extent became dissociated. The goodwill The drama and stage in the period before Garrick. of most sections of the public continued to be steadily accorded to a theatre which had ceased to defy the accepted laws and traditions of morality; and the opposition still aroused by it was confined to a small minority of thinkers, though these included some who were far from being puritans. John Dennis was not thought to have the worst of the controversy, when he defended the stage against the attack of an opponent far above him in stature—the great mystic William Law[5]—and to John Wesley himself it seemed that “a great deal more might be said in defence of seeing a serious tragedy” than of taking part in the amusements of bear-baiting and cock-fighting. On the other hand, the demands of the stage and those of its patrons and of the public of the “Augustan” age, and of that which succeeded it, were, in general, fast bound by the trammels of a taste with which a revival of the poetic drama long remained irreconcilable. There is every reason to conclude that the art of acting progressed in the same direction of artificiality, and became stereotyped in forms corresponding to the “chant” which represented tragic declamation in a series of actors ending with Quin and Macklin. In the latter must be recognized features of a precursor, but it was reserved to the genius of Garrick, whose Garrick. theatrical career extended from 1741 to 1776, to open a new era in his art. His unparalleled success was due in the first instance to his incomparable natural gifts; yet these were indisputably enhanced by a careful and continued literary training, and ennobled by a purpose which prompted him to essay the noblest, as he was capable of performing the most various, range of English theatrical characters. By devoting himself as actor and manager with special zeal to the production of Shakespeare, Garrick permanently popularized on the national stage the greatest creations of English drama, and indirectly helped to seal the doom of what survived of the tendency to maintain in the most ambitious walks of dramatic literature the nerveless traditions of the pseudo-classical school. A generation of celebrated actors and actresses, many of whom live for us in the drastic epigrams of Churchill’s Rosciad (1761), were his helpmates or his rivals; but their fame has paled, while his is destined to endure as that of one of the typical masters of his art.

The contrast between the tragedy of the 18th century and those plays of Shakespeare and one or two other Elizabethans which already before Garrick were known to the English stage, was weakened by the mutilated form Decline of tragedy. in which the old masterpieces generally, if not always, made their appearance there. Even so, however, there are perhaps few instances in theatrical history in which so unequal a competition was so long sustained. In the hands of the tragic poets of the age of Pope, as well as that of Johnson, tragedy had hopelessly stiffened into the forms of its accepted French models. Direct reproductions of these continued, as in Ambrose Philips’s and Charles Johnson’s (1679-1748) translations from Racine, and Aaron Hill’s from Voltaire. Among other tragic dramatists of the earlier part of the century may be mentioned J. Hughes, who, after assisting Addison in his Cato, produced at least one praiseworthy tragedy of his own;[6] E. Fenton, a joint translator of “Pope’s Homer” and the author of one extremely successful drama on a theme of singularly enduring interest,[7] and L. Theobald the first hero of the Dunciad, who, besides translations of Greek dramas, produced a few more or less original plays, one of which he was daring enough to father upon Shakespeare.[8] A more distinguished name is that of J. Thomson, whose unlucky Sophonisba and subsequent tragedies are, however, barely remembered by the side of his poems (The Seasons, &c.). The literary genius of E. Young, on the other hand, possessed vigour and variety enough to distinguish his tragedies from the ordinary level of Augustan plays; in one of them he seems to challenge comparison in the treatment of his theme with a very different rival,[9] but by his main characteristics as a dramatist he belongs to the school of his contemporaries. The endeavour of G. Lillo, in his London Merchant, or George Barnwell (1731), to bring the tragic lessons of terror and pity directly home to his fellow-citizens exercised an extraordinarily widespread as well as enduring effect on the history of the 18th-century drama. At home, they gave birth to the new, or, more properly speaking, to the revived, species of domestic tragedy, which connects itself more or less closely with a notable epoch in the history of English prose-fiction as well as of English painting. Abroad, this play—whose success was of the kind which nothing can kill—supplied the text to the teachings of Diderot, as well as an example to his own dramatic attempts; and through Diderot the impulse communicated itself to Lessing, and long exercised a great effect upon the literature of the German stage. At the same time, it must be allowed that Lillo’s pedestrian muse failed in the end to satisfy higher artistic demands than those met in his most popular play, while in another[10] she was less consciously guilty of an aberration towards that “tragedy of destiny,” which, in the modern drama at least, obscures the ethical character of all tragic actions. “Classical” tragedy in the generation of Dr Johnson pursued the even tenor of its way, the dictator himself treading with solemn footfall in the accustomed path,[11] and W. Mason making the futile attempt to produce a close imitation of Greek

  1. A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage.
  2. Sir Novelty Fashion (Lord Foppington), &c.
  3. The Lying Lover; The Tender Husband.
  4. The Conscious Lovers.
  5. The Absolute Unlawfulness of Stage Entertainments fully Demonstrated; The Stage defended, &c. (1726).
  6. The Siege of Damascus.
  7. Mariamne.
  8. The Double Falsehood.
  9. The Revenge (Othello).
  10. Fatal Curiosity.
  11. Irene (1749); The Patriot attributed to Johnson, is by Joseph Simpson.