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age: they believed that the Good upon record, were good, and the morally Great, were great; and, when they had occasion to express the sentiments of virtuous enthusiasm, they did not fear the imputation of having encroached upon the office of the pulpit; they knew that a well prepared mind, pouring forth from lips of fire strains worthy of an angelic nature, would never be mistaken for a proser or a hypocrite. It would extend my essay too far to give examples of this they will readily present themselves to every one who will look for them."*
In the age succeeding that in which flourished these great masters of the dramatic art, the stage seems to have been debased in the extreme. The writers of the time of Charles the Second appear to have been actuated by an unconquerable hatred to every thing that is venerable, pure, and holy. The sacred doctrines of religion, and the fundamental obligations of morality, were alike the objects of their senseless and pointless ridicule. It is, indeed, calculated to excite a most humiliating idea of human nature, when we find one set of men so utterly and gratuitously wicked, as to write such plays as were then the favourite amusements; and another set so deeply sunk into the degradation of vice, as to take pleasure in reading or seeing them represented. Fortunately the profligacy of many of these compositions was equalled by their dullness, and both together have deservedly consigned a large portion of them to oblivion.
Advancing a little nearer to our own times, we find two or three writers of comedy who did not exceed their immediate predecessors in licentiousness, and who far surpassed them in talent. Congreve has generally been regarded as a perfect model of a comic writer, and if wit were to be considered as the only requisite, his claim would be a valid one ; his pretensions, however, appear to have been greatly overrated. Of wit he certainly possessed a superabundance,-his plays are overcharged with it; his dramatic personages have all wit at will, and his dialogue is an unceasing combat of repartee. But, in every thing besides, his comedies are utterly defective; his plots are the most absurb and improbable that can be conceived; his characters have not the remotest affinity to truth or nature; and, in a moral point of view, his plays are detestable.
Vanburgh's comedies seem to be every way but morally perfect; his plots are generally conducted with a sufficient regard to probability; hischaracters, though not very elegant or prepossessing specimens of human nature, are marked with the vivid impress of reality; and, however eccentric, or however
• Mr. Godwin's Appendix to the Lives of E. and J. Phillips.
depraved, we recognize them as partaking of the same nature with ourselves. In characteristic humour he excels all his cotemporaries, and his dialogue is unrivalled for ease, nature, and propriety. But the poison of immorality peryades every scene, and leaves us to complain with Pope, that
“Van. wants grace, who never wanted wit.” Farquhar in wit is inferior to Congreve, and, in every other requisite for the drama, is very far inferior to Vanburgh. His comedies, however, are capable of affording considerable amusement, and display no ordinary share of talent; but they are disgraced by the licentiousness which they share in common with those of the two last mentioned authors, and which must banish all three from a well regulated stage.
Cibber is a writer of the same period, who, in some way or other, attained a high degree of reputation. In one respect he is unquestionably entitled to praise: he was the first dramatist of his time who ventured to treat virtue with respect, and to him, in a great degree, is the reformation of the stage to be attributed; but impartial criticism cannot regard him as a great comic writer. He seems to have thought that a succession of dialogues, composed of thechit-chat of fashionable life, constituted a good comedy. To each of his plays may be applied Dr. Johnson's observation on a more recent dramatic production, “Sir, a man may read it and not know that he has been reading any thing.” Cibber was, moreover, the very prince of plagiarists : like Farquhar and Otway, he plundered the elder dramatic writers without mercy, and without acknowledgment; he not only stole from them his plots and characters, but he transcribed whole scenes, carefully omitting, however, all the wit and sentiment, and reducing their melodious verse into very hobbling prose.
A period now occurs in the history of the stage which did not produce a single comedy deserving of notice; but the middle of the last century was distinguished by several of great excellence.
Murphy's evince very considerable dramatic powers, and, while genuine comedy was tolerated, were among the favourite amusements of the stage. Broad humour was not his forte, but his plays, notwithstanding, are lively and entertaining. He displays a most accurate and comprehensive knowledge of the operation of the passions in every day of life, and in the jeu de theatre he surpasses almost every other writer. The elder Colman wrote a great number of comedies; but two of them only retain possession of the boards.
The Jealous Wife” is a good, sound, solid, sensible, and rather heavy production. Mrs. Oakley's jealousy is too
violent for comedy, and Mr. Oakley's calmness too dull for any thing. “The Clandestine Marriage" (in which Colman was assisted by Garrick) is a play of far superior pretensions. Lord Ogleby, and the various members of the Sterling family, are admirable characters. The dialogue, if not brilliant, is neat, spirited, and appropriate ; and, although nothing takes place in the last scene that might not as well have occurred in the first, the incidents which retard the declaration of the clandestine marriage arise naturally each from the preceding one, and the interest never for a moment flags. This play has an unquestionable title to a place in the first class of English comedies. The period we are now contemplating was distinguished by the production of the dramatic works of a man who attained excellence in every thing which he attempted, and the brilliancy of whose powers was equalled only by their variety. Sheridan's two comedies abound so much in every quality that contributes to constitute excellence in this species of writing, as to leave us nothing to regret, but that he did not write more. 66 The Rivals” is generally regarded as inferior to the subsequent production of its author; it' probably is so, but it is not greatly inferior. In the vis comica, it perhaps excels even “ the School for Scandal;” and the exquisite scenes between Falkland and Julia stand alone to attest the author's power of commanding tears, as well as smiles.
The powers of Goldsmith, as a dramatist, have seldom been estimated as highly as they deserve, notwithstanding the popularity which still attends the representation of “ She Stoops to Conquer.” The plot of this comedy is, indeed, somewhat farcical ; but the characters are drawn with all that truth, force, and genuine English humour, which Goldsmith exhibited whenever he painted character. Tony Lumpkin alone, that glorious compound of ignorance, conceit, vulgarity, and mischief, would be sufficient to redeem any play from total condemnation. The comic personages which surround him, are little inferior to himself; and “ She Stoops to Conquer” is certainly one of the most amusing comedies in the English language. It seems difficult to account for the total neglect which, for some years, has attended the other admirable comedy of this author. “The Good-natured Man" seems in no respect inferior to the last-mentioned play, except in the want of a female character of importance. The rich comic humour, which pervades it, and the valuable moral lessons which it inculcates, render it worthy of being rescued from the oblivion into which it has fallen. Honeywood, Croaker, and Lofty, are all admirable characters; and, supported by actors of talent, could not fail of rendering the play attractive.
We could wish to see it revived in some theatre, the dimensions of which would allow the audience a chance of seeing and hearing it; and, although our province is not to cast plays, but to criticize them, we cannot forbear suggesting that Mr. Terry possesses every requisite for an efficient representative of Old Croaker.
Mr. Cumberland continued to write during so long a period, that it is difficult to know where to place him: he always wrote like a gentleman and a scholar, but the characteristic of his productions is elegant feebleness. Most of his dramas contain some good sentimental writing, but they all exhibit a want of power. If Dr. Johnson's definition be admitted, that "comedy is such a view of human nature as excites mirth, Cumberland was not a writer of comedy.
Mrs. Cowley's productions are light and elegant. The character of Letitia Hardy, though somewhat extravagant, displays a species of beauty which could only have been delineated by a female pen. The elegance of Mrs. Cowley's dramas may perhaps be the reason that they are no longer popular. Since the character of a gentleman went out of fashion, and was superseded by the lounger, the ruffian, the exquisite, and the various other species ejusdem generis, the Doricourts and Beauchamps are become unintelligible to a great portion of the audience, and are regarded with as much wonder as if they were the inhabitants of another planet.
The Heiress,” by General Burgoyne, independent of its dramatic merit, which is considerable, is remarkable as being the last legitimate comedy of the nineteenth century. From this time, barbarism seems to have overspread the stage : a series of dramas were introduced, which the ingenuity of Polonius himself would have been unable to refer to any known class; they belonged neither to tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, or historical-pastoral. These performances were, for the most part, as contemptible in their execution, as they were extravagant in their character. With the exception of one author, whom we shall shortly name, Mrs. Inchbald and Mr. Holcroft are the only writers, in a period of about twenty years, who can claim from the candid critic any thing but unqualified contempt. Each of these writers is now remembered only by a single play.
Every One has His Fault," by Mrs. Inchbald, although it possesses a large share of the prevalent vices, is yet greatly superior to the inane and frivolous productions by which it is surrounded ; but the comic parts are not sufficiently comic, and the serious parts are more than sufficiently serious; the latter, too, consist principally in the delineation of mere physical suffering, and are therefore repugnant in themselves to
good taste, besides being introduced in an improper place: but, whatever the merits of the play may be, it is clearly misnamed a comedy; it should have been denominated a dramatic novel. Holcroft was a man of strong mind; and, considering the disadvantages of his early years, the degree of eminence which he attained in the literary world is astonishing: but, “ The Road to Ruin," is very far from being a good play ; Goldfinch is a good comic portrait, and Silky is pretty well; but neither Mr. Dornton nor his son are any great favourites with us; the Socratic hosier is intolerable; and Sophia is far too silly for any man, but Harry Dornton, to fall in love withone would almost as soon marry the Widow Warren herself.
An author remains to be mentioned, to whom it is impossible to advert but with a mingled feeling of admiration and regret. George Colman the Younger was gifted with dramatic powers of the first order; and, had he been disposed, might have rescued the stage from the miserable degradation into which it had fallen: he might have given a tone to the public taste, and placed himself upon an equality with Sheridan and Goldsmith; but the ambition which actuated him was unfortunately of an inverted kind : he became emulous of rivalling the manufacturers of those speaking pantomimes, in five acts, which were then foisted on the town; and, consequently, produced dramas as far inferior to the comedies of the great masters of the art, as they were superior to the ephemeral productions with which they had to contend. “The Heir at Law” deserves to be noticed only on account of one character : Dr. Pangloss, with his eternal quotations, his conceit, his pedantry, his servility, is a most original and happy delineation; it is a gem amidst rubbish, for the rest of the play seems to have been written exclusively for the upper gallery. Lord Duberly and his lady are unnecessarily coarse; and the sentimentalities of Miss Čaroline and Mr. Henry, with the rustic heroics of Cecily Homespun and her brother, are more than human patience can bear. The faults of “The Poor Gentleman” are fewer, and less glaring, than those of "The Heir at Law," but it has no Dr. Pangloss; it is, upon the whole, a passable sort of play, containing nothing very excellent, and not much that is very offensive.“ John Bull" is distinguished by one comic portrait of almost matchless truth and brilliancy: Dennis Brulgruddery is unquestionably the best Irish character which the whole circle of the drama affords; he is not an Irishman merely from his brogue; every feature of the national character is distinctly brought out, and sustained with an admirable regard to truth and nature: of the rest of the play, the less that is said the better; its sins, both against taste and morals, are so numerous and flagrant,