Billeder på siden

be admitted, that the chorus tended to render tragedy both more magnificent and more instructive and moral. It was always the most sublime and poetical part of the work; and being carried on by singing, and accompanied with music, it must, no doubt, have diversified the entertainment greatly,' and added to its splendour. The chorus, at the same time, conveyed constant lessons of virtue. It was composed of such persons as might most naturally be supposed present on the occasion; inhabitants of the place where the scene was laid, often the companions of some of the principal actors, and therefore, in some degree, interested in the issue of the action. This company, which in the days of Sophocles was restricted to the number of fifteen persons, was constantly on the stage during the whole performance, mingled in discourse with the actors, entered into their concerns, suggested counsel and advice to them, moralized on all the incidents that were going on, and during the intervals of the action sung their odes, or songs, in which they addressed the gods, prayed for success to the virtuous, lamented their misfortunes, and delivered many religious and moral sentiments.*

* The office of the chorus is thus described by Horace :
Actoris partes chorus, officiumque virile
Defendat; neu quid medios intercinat actus,
Quod non proposito conducat, et hæreat aptè.
Ille bonis faveatque, et concilietur amicis,
Et regat iratos, et amet peccare timentes:

But, notwithstanding the advantages which were obtained by means of the chorus, the inconveniencies on the other side are so great, as to render the modern practice of excluding the chorus far more eligible upon the whole. For if a natural and probable imitation of human actions be the chief end of the drama, no other persons ought to be brought on the stage than those who are necessary to the dramatic action. The introduction of an adventitious company of persons, who have but a slight concern in the business of the play, is unnatural in itself, embarrassing to the poet, and, though it may render the spectacle splendid, tends, undoubtedly, to render it more cold and uninteresting, because more unlike a real transaction. The mixture of music, or song,

Ille dapes laudet mensæ brevis ; ille salubrem
Justitiam, legesque, et apertis otia portis.
Ille tegat commissa; deosque precetur, et oret
Ut redeat miseris, abeat fortuna superbis.


The chorus must support an actor's part,
Defend the virtuous, and advise with art;
Govern the choleric, and the proud appease,
And the short feasts of frugal tables praise;
Applaud the justice of well-govern'd states,
And peace triumphant with her open gates.
Intrusted secrets let them ne'er betray,

But to the righteous gods with ardour pray,
That fortune, with returning smiles, may bless
Afflicted worth, and impious pride depress.
Yet let their songs with apt coherence join,

Promote the plot, and aid the just design. FRANCIS.

on the part of the chorus, with the dialogue carried on by the actors, is another unnatural circumstance, removing the representation still farther from the resemblance of life. The poet, besides, is subjected to innumerable difficulties, in so contriving his plan that the presence of the chorus, during all the incidents of the play, shall consist with any probability. The scene must be constantly, and often absurdly, laid in some public place, that the chorus may be supposed to have free access to it. To many things that ought to be transacted in private, the chorus must ever be witnesses; they must be the confederates of both parties, who come successively upon the stage, and who are, perhaps, conspiring against each other. In short, the management of a chorus is an unnatural confinement to a poet; it requires too great a sacrifice of probability in the conduct of the action; it has too much the air of a theatrical decoration, to be consistent with that appearance of reality, which a poet must ever preserve in order to move our passions. The origin of tragedy among the Greeks, we have seen, was a choral song, or hymn to the gods. There is no wonder, therefore, that on the Greek stage it so long maintained possession. But it may confidently, I think, be asserted, that if, instead of the dramatic dialogue having been superadded to the chorus, the dialogue itself had been the first invention, the chorus would, in that case, never have been thought of.

One use, I am of opinion, might still be made of the ancient chorus, and would be a considerable improvement of the modern theatre; if, instead of that unmeaning, and often improperly chosen music, with which the audience is entertained in the intervals between the acts, a chorus were then to be introduced, whose music and songs, though forming no part of the play, should have a relation to the incidents of the preceding act, and to the dispositions which those incidents are presumed to have awakened in the spectators. By this means, the tone of passion would be kept up without interruption; and all the good effects of the ancient chorus might be preserved, for inspiring proper sentiments, and for increasing the morality of the performance, without those inconveniencies which arose from the chorus forming a constituent part of the play, and mingling unseasonably, and unnaturally, with the personages of the drama.

After the view which we have taken of the rise of tragedy, and of the nature of the ancient chorus, with the advantages and inconveniencies attending it, our way is cleared for examining, with more advantage, the three unities of action, place, and time, which have generally been considered as essential to the proper conduct of the dramatic fable.

Of these three, the first, Unity of Action, is, beyond doubt, far the most important. In treat

ing of epic poetry, I have already explained the nature of it as consisting in a relation which all the incidents introduced bear to some design or effect, so as to combine naturally into one whole. This unity of subject is still more essential to tragedy than it is to epic poetry. For a multiplicity of plots or actions, crowded into so short a space as tragedy allows, must, of necessity, distract the attention, and prevent passion from rising to any height. Nothing, therefore, is worse conduct in a tragic poet, than to carry on two independent actions in the same play; the effect of which is, that the mind being suspended and divided between them, cannot give itself up entirely either to the one or the other. There may, indeed, be underplots; that is, the persons introduced may have different pursuits and designs; but the poet's art must be shewn in managing these, so as to render them subservient to the main action. They ought to be connected with the catastrophe of the play, and to conspire in bringing it forward. If there be any intrigue which stands separate and independent, and which may be left out without affecting the unravelling of the plot, we may always conclude this to be a faulty violation of unity. Such episodes are not permitted here, as in epic poetry.

We have a clear example of this defect in Mr. Addison's Cato. The subject of this tragedy is the death of Cato; and a very noble personage

« ForrigeFortsæt »