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In the compositions of some French dramatic writers, tragedy has appeared with great lustre ; particularly Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire. They have improved upon the ancients by introducing more incidents, a greater variety of passions, and a fuller display of character. Like the ancients, they excel in regularities of conduct ; and their style is poetical and elegant. But to an English taste they want strength and passion, and are too declamatory and refined. They seem afraid of being too tragic; and it was the opinion of Voltaire, that to the perfection of tragedy, it is necessary to unite the vehemence and action of the English theatre with the correctness and decorum of the French.
Corneille, the father of French tragedy, is distin. guished by majesty of sentiment and a fruitful imaginalion. His genius was rich, but more turned to the epic than the tragic vein. He is magnificent and splendid, rather than touching and tender. He is full of declamation, impetuous and extravagant.
In tragedy, Racine is superior to Corneille. He wants, indeed, the copiousness of Corneille ; but he is free from his bombast, and excels him greatly in tenderness. . The beauty of his language and versification is uncommon; and he has managed his rhymes with superior advantage.
Voltaire is not inferior to his predecessors in the drama ; and in one article he has outdone them, the delicate and interesting situations he has introduced. Here lies his chief strength. Like his predecessors, however, he is sometimes deficient in force, and sometimes too declamatory His characters, Notwithstanding, are drawn with spirit, his events are striking, and his sentiments elevated.
It has often been remarked of tragedy in Great Britain, that it is more ardent than that of France, but more irregular and incorrect. It has, therefore, excelled in the soul of tragedy. For the pathetic must be allowed to be the chief excellence of the iragic muse.
The first object on the English theatre, is the great Shakespeare. In extent and force of genius, both for tragedy and comedy, he is unrivalled. But at the same time it is genius shooting wild, deficient in taste, not always chaste, and unassisted by art and knowledge. Criticism has been exhausted in commentaries upon him ; yet to this day it is undecided, whether his beauties or defects be greatest. In his writings there are admirable scenes and passages without number ; but there is not one of his plays which can be pronounced a good one. Beside extreme irregularities in conduct, and grotesque mixtures of the serious and comic, we are frequently disturbed by unnatural thoughts, harsh expressions, and a certain obscure boinbast, and play upon words. These faults are, however, compensated by iwo of the greatest excellencies a tragic poet can possess, his lively and diversified painting of character, and his strong and natural expressions of passion. On these two virtues his merit rests. In the midst of his absurdities he interests and moves us ; so great is his skill in human nature, and so lively his representations of it.
He possesses also the merit of having created for himself a world of preternatural beings. His witches, ghosts, fairies, and spirits of all kinds, are so awful, myeterious and peculiar, as strongly to affect the imagination. His two masterpieces are his Othello and · Macbeth. With regard to his historical plays, they are neither tragedies nor comedies ; but a peculiar species of dramatic entertainment, in which he describes the characters, events, and manners of the times of which he treats.
Since Shakespeare, there are few English dramatic writers whose whole works are entitled to high praise. There are several tragedies, however, of considerable merit. Lee's Theodosius has warmth and tenderness, though romantic in the plan, and extravagant in the sentiments. Oiway is great in his Orphan and Venice Preserved. Perhaps, however, he is too tragic in these pieces. He had genius and strong passions, but was very indelicale.
The tragedies of Rowe abound in morality and in elevated sentiments. His poetry is good, and his language pure and elegant. He is, notwithstanding, too cold and uninteresting; and flowery, rather than tragic. His best dramas are Jane Shore and the Fair Penitent, which excel in the tender and pathetic.
Dr. Young's Revenge discovers genius and fire ; but wants tenderness, and turns too much on the dire. ful passions. In the Mourning Bride of Congreve there are fine situations and much good poetry. The tragedies of Thompson are too full of a stiff inorality; which renders them dull and formal. His Tancred and Sigismunda is his masterpiece; and for the plot, characters, and sentiments, justly deserves a place among the best English tragedies.
A Greek tragedy is a simple relation of an interesting incident. A French tragedy is a series of artful and refined conversations. An English tragedy is a combat of strong passions set before us in all iheir violence, producing deep disasters, and filling the spectators with grief. Ancient fragedies are more natural and simple; modern more artful and complex.
The strain and spirit of comedy discriminate it sufficiently from tragedy. While pity, terror, and the other strong passions form the province of the latter, the sole instrument of the former is ridicule. Follies
and vices, and whatever in the human character is improper, or exposes to censure and ridicule, are objects of comedy. As a satirical exhibition of the improprieties and follies of men, it is useful and moral. It is commendable by this species of composition to correct and polish the manners of men. Many vices are more successfully exploded by ridicule, than by serious arguments. It is possible, however, to employ ridicule improperly; and by its operation to do mischief instead of good. For ridicule is far from being a proper test of truth. Licentious writers, therefore, of tbe comic class, have often cast ridicule on objects and characters which did not deserve it. But this is not ihe fault of comedy, but the turn and genius of certain writers. In the hands of loose men, comedy will mislead and corrupi; but in those of virtuous writers, it is not only a gay and innocent, but a laudable and useful entertainment. English comedy, however, is frequently a school of vice.
The rules of dramatic action that were prescribed for tragedy, belong 'also to comedy. A comic writer must observe the unities of action, time and place. He must attend to nature and probability. The imitation of manners ought to be even more exact in comedy than in tragedy ; for the subjects of comedy are more familiar and better known.
The subjects of tragedy are confined to no age nor country ; but it is otherwise in comedy. For the de. corums of behaviour, and the nice discriminations of character which are the subjects of comedy, change with time and country ; and are never so well understood by foreigners as by natives. We weep for the heroes of Greece and Rome ; but we are touched by the ridicule of such manners and characters only as we see and know. The scene, therefore, of comedy should always be laid in the author's own country and age. The comic poet catches the manners living as they rise.
It is true, indeed, that Plautus and Terence did not follow this rule. The scene of their comedies is laid
in Greece, and they adopted the Greek laws and cuistoms. But it is to be remembered, that comedy was in their age a new entertainment in Rome, and that they were contented with the praise of translating Meander and other comic writers of Greece. In posterior times the Romans had the “ Comedia Togata," or what was founded on their own manners, as well as the “ Cumedia Palliata,” which was taken from the Greeks.
There are two kinds of comedy, that of character and that of intrigue. In the last, the plot or action of the play is the principal object. In the first, the display of a peculiar character is the chief point ; and to this the action is subordinate. The French abound most in comedies of character. Such are the capital pieces of Moliere. The English have inclined more to comedies of intrigue. Such are the plays of Congreve, and in general there is more story, action, and bustle in English chan in French comedy.
The perfection of comedy is to be found in a proper mixture of these two kinds. Mere conyersation with. out an interesting story is insipid. There should ever be so much intrigue as to excite both fears and wishes. The incidents should be striking, and afford a proper field for the exhibition of character. “The piece, however, should not be overcharged with intrigue ; for this would be to convert a comedy into a novel.
With respect to characters, it is a common error of comic writers to carry them much beyond real life ; indeed it is very difficult to hit the precise point where wit ends, and buffoonery begins. The comedian may exaggerate ; but good sense must teach him where to stop.
In comedy there ought to be a clear distinction in characters. The contrast of characters, however, by pairs and by opposites, is too theatrical and affected. It is the perfection of art to conceal art. A masterly writer gives us his characters, distinguished rather by such shades of diversity as are commonly found in society, than marked by such oppositions, as are seldom brought into actual contrast in any of the circumstances of life.