« PreviousContinue »
literature of songs and ballads; but the wealth of their early ages being spent either in camps or in the country, and not, generally speaking, in great cities, the minstrel, as rude curiosity advanced towards refinement and fastidiousness, became a conteur-a romancer-instead of rising, as the Greek rhapsodist had done, into a dramatist. He had to wander singly from abbey to abbey, from castle to castle-instead of devoting himself with all appliances and means to boot to the concentrated intelligence of a people in a capital. Thus, by degrees, the original heroic ballad passed into the prose romance of chivalry, while the brief and ludicrous strain of the Trouveur was refined into the novel of the Italians. In this state Cervantes found the imaginative prose of Europe. His genius blended the elements together, and thus ennobled, rather than invented, a form of composition, which has since, in all essential particulars, remained unchanged, -and which appears to have, in these later times, achieved a decided triumph of popularity over the dramatic form which our ancestors borrowed, directly or indirectly, from the literature of the Greeks.
There are few things in literary history more remarkable than the rapidity with which the modern drama attained its highest excellence, not in one country of Europe, but in every country where it can be said to have at all approached perfection. Cervantes vitnessed, in his own youth, the curta supeller and barbarous farces which he lived to see supplanted by the dramas of Lope de Vega; and but a few years intervened between his death and the production of the masterpieces of Calderon. A trànsition quite as sudden carried the French from their monkish Mysteries to Corneille and Molière ; and here, at home, how few are the steps from Gammar Gurton's Needle to Romeo and Juliet! The literature of Germany stands by itself in nothing more strikingly than its history; but as to this department, the general rule is exemplified in it also; for the first of its dramatic names remain the greatest too.
How happens it, that the decline of the drama, as a popular form of composition, has been scarcely less rapid-certainly not a whit less marked-than its early progress had been? How happens it, that, after the lapse of two centuries, the Spaniards still speak of nobody but Lope and Calderon—that the French with difficulty recognise even Voltaire as entitled to be placed by the side of the three great dramatists of the age of Louis XIV.—and that we, though our imaginative literature has produced in the interim so many illustrious writers, scarcely dream, when the English drama is mentioned, of any names but those of Shakspeare, Jonson, and their immediate followers; if, indeed, it may not
be said that Shakspeare is to the English people, as a people, at this moment himself alone the English drama?
The answer, we apprehend, must be found, chiefly, in the simple fact, that the drama is a form of composition originally intended and adapted for a state of society in which reading is not a general accomplishment of the people. It demands brevity of expression and concentration of parts, as among its first requisites; it trusts much to the aid of apparatus; and much more to the ready imaginations of persons excited during a brief space by external stimulants; and, although it has been fortunate enough to be the vehicle of the very highest genius, and also of the very highest art that the annals of poetry have to display, it seems impossible not to admit that it hopes in vain to advance in power and popularity along with the growing intelligence of the people at large. The dramatic masterpieces of Greece herself were all produced within the limits of almost a single age; and that by no means the age in which there was the greatest number of Greek readers in the world.
The truth is, that reading is a source of entertainment which, out of the actual business of individual life, has no rival to fear. No one, that has formed any intellectual habits at all, can dance, or sing, or look on dancers, or listen to singing for many hours on end—nor is there any cultivated audience in the world that would not, if the matter were put to a fair and honest vote, acknowledge that three hours of the best acted play are enough. But how rare a thing must a well acted play have at all times been? We much doubt if there ever was a theatrical performance to which really intelligent persons could attend throughout, without deriving from the exhibition almost as much of pain as of pleasure; most assuredly we have witnessed none such in our own times. Highly educated minds, thoroughly acquainted with the master, pieces of dramatic art by means of reading, do indeed acquire the tact of conducting themselves at the play very much as they do at the opera; that is, of attending to the Kemble, Young, or Kean, who happens to have a part in the piece--for how seldom does it occur that more than one really good performer figures on the same occasion ?-and thinking of any thing rather than the stage before them, when the solitary star happens not to illuminate its boards. But this compromise is only for those who have leisure to be luxurious; and luxury is, we fear, seldom indulged in long without the approaches of indifference. Those, on the other hand, who do not see plays continually, are, however well educated, unable to withdraw themselves without a strong effort from the exhibition which tortures while it fascinates. They are the slaves of the eye and the ear; the glare and the noise compel
attention; and the unhappy spectator, so far from being able to
with myriads of copies of his works, collected and singly—so cheap, that Macbeth costs less than the Babes in the Wood would have done half a century ago, and yet executed with an accuracy and even an elegance that might satisfy the most critical eye! We are now a nation of readers—much more so than any other people in Europe-and that, we strongly suspect, is the principal reason why the theatre is more neglected among us than any where else. We read Shakspeare; we stare at Aladdin, or laugh at Paul Pry, but we have no new dramas--and every year a whole library of new novels and romances.
The business of painting our manners and lashing our vices has been truly in the hands of our novelists ever since Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne produced their strong and graphic delineations. These men were to their own times what Jonson and his brother moralists had been to a preceding age, and what the Wycherleys' and 'Vanburghs had not been to another. They have been succeeded by a long line of writers in the same walk, vastly inferior for the most part to them in genius, but exerting infinitely greater power each over his own day, than any dramatist that has appeared among us within the period, if we except the brilliant usurpation of Foote, the hundred days of the dramatized lampoon. Even when the same writer has tried both walks with success, it is
easy to see in which success has been best rewarded. What is the Good-natured Man to the Vicar of Wakefield ?Not very
much more than Tom Thumb is to Tom Jones. From the appearance of Gil Blas downwards, in like manner, though the spectacle has always been a favourite amusement in Paris, the manners and the mind of the French people through all their various changes, their intrigues, their enthusiasm, their profligacy, their devotion, their infidelity, and their reviving fanaticism, all have been depicted by their novelists to infinitely more purpose and effect than by their dramatists. The imaginative works that have most powerfully reflected, most powerfully influenced the national mind, have been of this class. The Nouvelle Héloïse alone is better and worse than a myriad of their dramas. Candide and the Princess of Babylon did more for Voltaire's ends than all his Théâtre.
If courtly patronage could have made any stage flourish preeminently, it must have done so in modern Germany; yet even there the attempt has been unsuccessful. Werter and Wilhelm Meister have had infinitely more influence on the public mind of that country than all Goethe's dramatic works put together-unless, perhaps, we must except the Faust, which is, after all, much more of a romance than a drama. The strong tendency of the time is seen in Schiller also : his Wallenstein, by far the most powerful and effective of his dramatic works, is in reality a historical romance—it is a whole history in the form of scenes—a tragedy, or rather a tragic tale, in three plays. The often satirized stage-directions of the German theatre are well worthy of consideration in the ame point of view. Those minute and elaborate instructions as to the looks, attitudes, tones, and inflections of the dramatis persona—what do they attest but a systematic struggle to bring the dramatic form more nearly to the level of the novel as regards the reader ? Perhaps the same thing may be said of those curious abstracts of character which Ben Jonson was fond of prefixing to his comedies ; and indeed, the materials of his dramas, and the whole character of his talents, were, we think, much better adapted for the modern form of composition than for that in which he would fain have rivalled his masters of the ancient world. Had Jonson written novels, his peculiar fancy for the delineation of mere oddities might have been gratified to the utmost extent, without producing any of those unfortunate effects which it undeniably has had on him as a dramatist. We can scarcely imagine a work more likely to have taken its place among the first favourites of the world than a novel, in which the humours of the Bobadils, Tom Otters, Ursulas, &c. &c. should have been opposed, with the constructive skill of another Epicene, to the display of that profound mastery of passion which all must recognize in the principal scenes of the Catiline. The Fortunes of Niges may be considered as an attempt to do what it is a thousand pities that Ben Jonson should have left undone.
Cumberland, determined to make the History of his Foundling as like Tom Jones as possible, prefixes critical chapters to the different sections of Henry, and discusses in them, in an agreeable enough style, many speculative questions connected with the literature of the novel-assuming throughout that it requires precisely the same talents as the drama. Sir Walter Scott, on the other hand, in writing the lives of so many novelists, is compelled to observe the extraordinary numbers of instances in which the same men have tried both departments, and, producing little or no effect in the one, attained, nevertheless, the very highest excellence in the other--and he draws the general conclusion that might be anticipated. Cervantes struggled hard for dramatic fame and failed: we believe none of his pieces ever engaged any considerable share of popularity except one or two mere interludes. Le Sage supported his family half his lifetime by writing comic operas for the Foire: and he tried, besides, over and over again the regular comedy--yet, who remembers that the author of Gil Blas was a dramatist? Fielding is a third example: of his numerous dramatic efforts all have perished but Tom Thumb-and Smollett is a fourth; for he, too, tried in vain first tragedy, then opera, and lastly comedy; or rather, as might be expected from the turn of his mind, something hovering between coinedy and farce.-In short, the only English exception is to be found in Goldsmith, who has certainly produced both a standard novel and a standard play: for Cumberland has not, after all, succeeded in either walk, so as to entitle him to a place among our classics. His best novels and his best comedies may be admitted to be much on the same level; but our difficulty is not to find the man who can imitate two masters cleverly, but the master himself, who can equally show himself the master in two separate walks :- And perhaps it would be too much to say, that we have found this even in Goldsmith; for a writer may be both an original and a delightful one, without meriting a place in the highest rank; and, admirable as Goldsmith's productions are, who thinks of naming him as a dramatist with Sheridan, or as a novelist with that Sterne, whom he, Dr. Goldsmith, pronounced to be a heavy fellow'?
'Fielding,' says Sir Walter Scott, ‘has added his name to that of Le Sage and others; who, eminent for fictitious narration, have either altogether failed in their dramatic attempts, or at least have fallen far short of that degree of excellence, which might have been previously augured of them. It is hard to fix upon any plausible reason for a failure which has occurred in too many instances to be the operation of mere chance, especially since, a priori, one would think the same talents necessary for both walks of literature. Force of character, strength of expression, felicity of contrast and situation, a well-constructed plot, in which the developement is at once natural and unexpected, and where the interest is kept uniformly alive till summed up by the catastrophe-all these are requisites as essential to the labour of the novelist, as to that of the dramatist, and, indeed, appear to comprehend the sum of the qualities necessary to success in both departments. Fielding's, biographers have, in this particular instance, explained his lack of theatrical success as arising entirely from the careless haste with which he huddled up his dramatic compositions ;
it being no uncommon thing with him to finish an act or two in a morning, and to write out whole scenes upon the paper in which his favourite tobacco had been wrapped up. Negligence of this kind will