« ForrigeFortsæt »
Cato is, and supported by the author with much dignity. But all the 'love scenes in the play; the passion of Cato's two sons for Lucia, and that of Juba for Cato's daughter, are mere episodes; have no connexion with the principal action, and no effect upon it. The author thought his subject too barren in incidents, and, in order to diversify it, he has given us, as it were, by the bye, a history of the amours that were going on in Cato's family; by which he hath both broken the unity of his subject, and formed a very unseasonable junction of gallantry with the high sentiments, and public spirited passions, which predominate in other parts, and which the play was chiefly designed to display.
We must take care not to confound the unity of the action with the simplicity of the plot. Unity, and simplicity, import different things in dramatic composition. The plot is said to be simple, when a small number of incidents are introduced into it. But it may be implex, as the critics term it, that is, it may include a considerable number of persons and events, and yet not be deficient in unity; provided all the incidents be made to tend towards the principal object of the play, and be properly connected with it. All the Greek tragedies not only maintain unity in the action, but are remarkably simple in the plot; to such a degree, indeed, as sometimes to appear to us too naked, and destitute of interesting events.
In the Edipus Coloneus, for instance, of Sophocles, the whole subject is no more than this: Œdipus, blind and miserable, wanders to Athens, and wishes to die there; Creon and his son Polynices arrive at the same time, and endeavour, separately, to persuade the old man to return to Thebes, each with a view to his own interest: he will not go: Theseus, the King of Athens, protects him; and the play ends with his death. the Philoctetes of the same author, the plot or fable is nothing more, than Ulysses, and the son of Achilles, studying to persuade the diseased Philoctetes to leave his uninhabited island, and go with them to Troy; which he refuses to do, till Hercules, whose arrows he possessed, descends from heaven, and commands him. Yet these simple, and seemingly barren subjects, are wrought up with so much art by Sophocles, as to become very tender and affecting.
Among the moderns, much greater variety of events has been admitted into tragedy. It has become more the theatre of passion than it was among the ancients. A greater display of characters is attempted; more intrigue and action are carried on; our curiosity is more awakened, and more interesting situations arise. This variety is, upon the whole, an improvement on tragedy; it renders the entertainment both more animated and more instructive; and when kept within due bounds, may be perfectly consistent
with unity of subject. But the poet must, at the same time, beware of not deviating too far from simplicity in the construction of his fable. For if he overcharges it with action and intrigue, it becomes perplexed and embarrassed; and, by consequence, loses much of its effect. Congreve's Mourning Bride," a tragedy otherwise far from being void of merit, fails in this respect; and may be given as an instance of one standing in perfect opposition to the simplicity of the ancient plots. The incidents succeed one another too rapidly. The play is too full of business. It is difficult for the mind to follow and comprehend the whole series of events; and, what is the greatest fault of all, the catastrophe, which ought always to be plain and simple, is brought about in a manner too artificial and intricate.
Unity of action must not only be studied in the general construction of the fable, or plot, but must regulate the several acts and scenes into which the play is divided.
The division of every play into five acts, has no other foundation than common practice, and the authority of Horace:
Neve minor, neu sit quinto productior actu
DE ARTE POET.
*If you would have your play deserve success,
Give it five acts complete, nor more, nor less. FRANCIS.
It is a division purely arbitrary. There is nothing in the nature of the composition which fixes this number rather than any other; and it had been much better if no such number had been ascertained, but every play had been allowed to divide itself into as many parts or intervals as the subject naturally pointed out. On the Greek stage, whatever may have been the case on the Roman, the division by acts was totally unknown. The word act never once occurs in Aristotle's Poetics, in which he defines exactly every part of the drama, and divides it into the beginning, the middle, and the end; or, in his own words, into the prologue, the episode, and the exode. The Greek Tragedy was, indeed, one continued representation, from beginning to end. The stage was never empty, nor the curtain let fall. But, at certain intervals, when the actors retired, the chorus continued and sung. Neither do these songs of the chorus divide the Greek tragedies into five portions, similar to our acts; though some of the commentators have endeavoured to force them into this office. But it is plain, that the intervals at which the chorus sung are extremely unequal and irregular, suited to the occasion and the subject; and would divide the play sometimes into three, sometimes into seven or eight acts.*
As practice has now established a different plan
* See the dissertation prefixed to Franklin's translation of Sophocles.
on the modern stage, has divided every play into five acts, and made a total pause in the representation at the end of each act, the poet must be careful that this pause shall fall in a proper place; where there is a natural pause in the action, and where, if the imagination has any thing to supply that is not represented on the stage, it may be supposed to have been transacted during the interval.
The first act ought to contain a clear exposition of the subject. It ought to be so managed as to awaken the curiosity of the spectators; and at the same time to furnish them with materials for understanding the sequel. It should make them acquainted with the personages who are to appear, with their several views and interests, and with the situation of affairs at the time when the play commences. A striking introduction, such as the first speech of Almeria in the Mourning Bride, and that of Lady Randolph in Douglas, produces a happy effect: but this is what the subject will not always admit. In the ruder times of dramatic writing, the exposition of the subject was wont to be made by a prologue, or by a single actor appearing, and giving full and direct information to the spectators. Some of Eschylus's and Euripides's plays are opened in this manner. But such an introduction is extremely inartificial, and therefore is now totally abolished, and the subject