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The style of comedy ought to be pure, lively and elegant, generally imitating the tone of polite conversation, and never descending into gross expressions. Rhyme is not suitable to comic composition ; for what has poetry to do with the conversation of men in com. mon life? The current of thọ dialogue should be easy without pertness, and genteel without flippancy. The wit should never be studied nor unseasonable.
The ancient comedy was an avowed satire against particular persons, brought upon the stage by name. Such are the plays of Aristophanes ; and compositions of so singular a nature illustrate well the turbulent and licentious state of Athens. The most illustrious personages, generals and magistrates, were then made the subjects of comedy. Vivacity, satire, and buffoonery are the characteristics of Aristophanes. On many occasions he displays genius and force ; but his performances give us no high idea of the attic taste for wit in his age. His ridicule is extravagant, his wit farcical, his personal railery cruel and biting, and his obscenity intolerable.
Soon after the age of Aristophanes the liberty of attacking persons by name on the stage was prohibited by law. The middle comedy then took its rise. Living persons were still attacked, but under fictitious
Of these pieces we have no remains. They were succeeded by the new comedy ; when it became, as it is now, the business of the stage to exhibit manmers and characters, but not those of particular persons. The author of this kind, most celebrated among the Greeks, was Meander ; but his writings are perished.
Of the new comedy of the ancients, the only remains are the plays of Plautus and Terence. The first is eminent for the vis comica, and for an expressive phraseology. He bears, however, many marks of the rude
ness of the dramatic art in his time. He has too much low wit and scurrility; and is by far too quaint and full of conceit. He has more variety and more force than Terence; and his characters are strongly marked, though sometimes coarsely.
Terence is polished, delicate, and elegant. His style is a model of the most pure and graceful latinity. His dialogue is always correct and decent; and his relations have a picturesque and beautiful simplicity. His morrality is in general unexceptionable ; his situations are interesting ; and many of his sentiments touch the heart. He may be considered as the founder of seri. ous comedy. In sprightliness and strength he is deficient. There is a sameness in his characters and plots; and he is said to have been inferior to Meander, whom he copied. To form a perfect comic author, the spirit and fire of Plautus ought to be united with the grace and correctness of Terence.
The most prominent object in modern comedy is the Spanish theatre. The chief comedians of Spain are Lopez de Vega, Guillen and Calderon. The first, who is the most famous of them, wrote above a thousand plays; and was infinitely more irregular than Shakespeare. He totally disregarded the three unities, and every established rule of dramatic writing. One play often includes many years, and even the whole life of a man.
The scene, during the first act, is in Spain ; the next in Italy ; and the third in Africa. His plays are chiefly historical, and are a mixture of heroic speeches, serious incidents, war and slaughter, ridicule and buffoonery. He jumbles together christianity and paganism, virtues and vices, angels and gods Notwithstanding his faults, he possessed genius and great force of imagination. Many of his characters are well painted; many of his situations are happy; and from the
source of his rich invention, dramatic writers of other nations have frequently drawn their materials. He was conscious himself of his extreme irregularities, and apologized for them from the prevailing taste of his countrymen.
The comic theatre of France is allowed to be core rect, chaste, and decent. The comic author in whom the French glory most is Moliere. In the judgment of French critics he has nearly reached the summit of perfection in his art. Nor is this the decision of mere partiality. Moliere is the satirist only of vice and folly. His characters were peculiar to his own times ; and in general his ridicule was justly directed. His comic powers were great ; and his pleasantry is always ibnocent. His Misanthrope and Tartuffe are in verse, and constitute a kind of dignified comedy, in which vice is exposed in the style of elegant and polite satire. In - his prose comedies their is a profusion of ridicule ; but the poet never gives alarm to modesty, nor casts contempt on virtue. With these high qualities, however, considerable defects are mingled. In unravelling his plots, he is unhappy; as this is frequently brought on with too little preparation, and in an improbable manner. In his verse comedies he is not always sufficiently interesting ; and he is too full of long speeches. In his risible pieces in prose he is too farcical. the whole it may be affirmed, that few writers ever attained so perfecily the true end of comedy His Tartuffe and Avare are his two capital productions.
From the English theatre is naturally expected a great variety of original characters in comedy, and bolder strokes of wit and humour than from any other modern stage. Humour is in some degree peculiar to England. The freedom of the government, and the unrestrained liberty of English manners, are favourable to humour and singularity of character. In France the jnfluence of a despotic court spreads uniformity over the nation. Hence comedy has a more amplified and freer vein in Britain than in France. But it is to be regretted, that the comic spirit of Britain is often disgraced by indecency and licentiousness.
The first age, however, of English comedy was not infected by this spirit. The plays of Shakespeare and Ben Johnson have no immoral tendency. The comedies of the former display a strong, creative genius; but are irregular in conduct. They are singularly rich in characters and manners ; but often descend to please the mob. Johnson is more regular, but stiff and pedantic ; though not void of dramatic genius. Much fancy and invention, and many fine passages, are found in the plays of Beaumont and Fetcher. But in general they abound in romantic incidents, unnatural characters, and coarse allusions.
Change of manners has rendered the comedies of the last age obsolete. For it is the exhibition of prevailing modes and characters, that gives a charm to comedy. Thus Plautus was antiquated to the Romans in the days of Augustus. But to the honour of Shakespeare his Falstaff is still admired, and his Merry Wives of Windsor read with pleasure.
After the restoration of Charles II. the licentiousness which polluted the court and nation, seized upon comedy. The rake became the predominant character. Ridicule was thrown upon chastity and sobriety. At the end of the play, indeed, the rake becomes a sober man; but through the performance he is a fine gentleman, and exhibits a picture of the pleasurable enjoy. ments of life. The spirit of comedy had the worst effect on youth of both sexes, and continued to the days of George II.
In the comedies of Dryden there are many strokes of genius ; but he is hasty and careless. As his object was to please, he followed the current of the times, and gave way to indelicacy and licentiousness. His indecency was at times so gross as to occasion a prohibition of his plays on the stage.
After Dryden, flourished Cibber, Vanburgh, Farquhar and Congreve. Cibber has sprightliness and a pert vivacity ; but his incidents are so forced and unnatural, that his performances have all sunk into obscurity, excepting the Careless Husband and the Provoked Husband Of these the first is remarkable for the easy politeness of the dialogue ; and it is a tolerable moral in its conduct. The latter, in which Cibber was assisted by Vanburgh, is perhaps the best comedy in the English language ; and even to this it may be objected that it has a double plot. Its characters, however, are natural, and it abounds with fine painting and happy strokes of humour.
Wit, spirit and ease, characterise Sir John Vanburgh; but he is the most indelicate and immoral of all our comedians. Congreve undoubtedly possessed genius. He is witty and sparkling, and full of character and action. Indeed he overflows with wit ; for it is often introduced unseasonably ; and in general there is too much of it for well bred conversation. Farquhar is a light and gay writer ; less correct and less brilliant than Congreve ; but he has more ease, and much of the vis comica. Like Congreve he is licentious; and modesty must turn from them both with abhorrence. The French boast with justice of the superior decency of their stage, and speak of the English theatre wiin as. tonishment. Their philosophical writers ascribe the profligate manners of London to the indelicacy and corruption of English comedy,