« ForrigeFortsæt »
comedies are distinguished for this happy turn of conversation; most of them are liable to one or other of the exceptions I have mentioned. The Careless Husband, and perhaps we may add the Provoked Husband, and the Suspicious Husband, seem to have more merit than most of them, for easy and natural dialogue.
These are the chief observations that occur to me, concerning the general principles of this species of dramatic writing, as distinguished from tragedy. But its nature and spirit will be still better understood, by a short history of its progress; and a view of the manner in which it has been carried on by authors of different nations.
Tragedy is generally supposed to have been more ancient among the Greeks than comedy. We have fewer lights concerning the origin and progress of the latter. What is most probable is, that, like the other, it took its rise accidentally from the diversions peculiar to the feast of Bacchus, and from Thespis and his cart; till, by degrees, it diverged into an entertainment of a quite different nature from solemn and heroic tragedy. Critics distinguish three stages of comedy among the Greeks; which they call the ancient, the middle, and the new.
The ancient comedy consisted in direct and avowed satire against particular known persons,
who were brought upon the stage by name. Of this nature are the plays of Aristophanes, eleven of which are still extant; plays of a very singular nature, and wholly different from all compositions which have, since that age, borne the name of comedy. They shew what a turbulent and licentious republic that of Athens was, and what unrestrained scope the Athenians gave to ridicule, when they could suffer the most illustrious personages of their state, their generals, and their magistrates, Cleon, Lamachus, Nicias, Alcibiades, not to mention Socrates the philosopher, and Euripides the poet, to be publicly made the subject of comedy. Several of Aristophanes's plays are wholly political satires upon public management, and the conduct of generals and statesmen, during the Peloponnesian war. They are so full of political allegories and allusions, that it is impossible to understand them without a considerable knowledge of the history of those times. They abound too with parodies of the great tragic poets, particularly of Euripides; to whom the author bore much enmity, and has written two comedies, almost wholly in order to ridicule him.
Vivacity, satire, and buffoonery, are the characteristics of Aristophanes. Genius and force he displays upon many occasions; but his performances, upon the whole, are not calculated to give us any high opinion of the Attic taste of wit, in his age. They seem, indeed, to have been composed for the mob. The ridicule employed in
them is extravagant; the wit, for the most part, buffoonish and farcical; the personal raillery, biting and cruel; and the obscenity that reigns in them is gross and intolerable. The treatment given by this comedian to Socrates the philosopher, in his play of The Clouds, is well known; but however it might tend to disparage Socrates in the public esteem, P. Brumoy, in his Theatre Grec, makes it appear, that it could not have been, as is commonly supposed, the cause of decreeing the death of that philosopher, which did not happen till twenty-three years after the representation of Aristophanes's Clouds. There is a chorus in Aristophanes's plays; but altogether of an irregular kind. It is partly serious, partly comic; sometimes mingles in the action, sometimes addresses the spectators, defends the author, and attacks his enemies.
Soon after the days of Aristophanes, the liberty of attacking persons on the stage by name, being found of dangerous consequence to the public peace, was prohibited by law. The chorus also was, at this period, banished from the comic theatre, as having been an instrument of too much license and abuse. Then what is called the middle comedy took rise, which was no other than an elusion of the law. Fictitious names, indeed, were employed; but living persons were still attacked, and described in such a manner as to be sufficiently known. Of these comic pieces, we have no remains. To them succeeded the new comedy;
when the stage being obliged to desist wholly from personal ridicule, became, what it is now, the picture of manners and characters, but not of particular persons. Menander was the most distinguished author of this kind among the Greeks; and both from the imitations of him by Terence, and the account given of him by Plutarch, we have much reason to regret that his writings have perished; as he appears to have reformed in a very high degree the public taste, and to have set the model of correct, elegant, and moral comedy.
The only remains which we now have of the new comedy, among the ancients, are the plays of Plautus and Terence; both of whom were formed upon the Greek writers. Plautus is distinguished for very expressive language, and a great degree of the vis comica. As he wrote in an early period, he bears several marks of the rudeness of the dramatic art among the Romans in his time. He opens his plays with prologues, which sometimes preoccupy the subject of the whole piece. The representation, too, and the action of the comedy, are sometimes confounded; the actor departing from his character, and addressing the audience. There is too much low wit and scurrility in Plautus; too much of quaint conceit, and play upon words. But withal, he displays more variety, and more force than Terence. His characters are always strongly marked, though sometimes coarsely. His Amphytrion has
been copied both by Moliere and by Dryden; and his Miser also (in the Aulularia), is the foundation of a capital play of Moliere's which has been once and again imitated on the English stage. Than Terence, nothing can be more delicate, more polished, and elegant. His style is a model of the purest and most graceful Latinity. His dialogue is always decent and correct; and he possesses, beyond most writers, the art of relating with that beautiful picturesque simplicity which never fails to please. His morality is, in general, unexceptionable. The situations which he introduces are often tender and interesting; and many of his sentiments touch the heart. Hence, he may be considered as the founder of that serious comedy, which has, of late years, been revived, and of which I shall have occasion afterwards to speak. If he fails in any thing, it is in sprightliness and strength. Both in his characters and in his plots there is too much sameness and uniformity throughout all his plays: he copied Menander, and is said not to have equalled him.* In order to form
* Julius Cæsar has given us his opinion of Terence, in the following lines, which are preserved in the Life of Terence, ascribed to Suetonius;
Tu quoque, tu in summis, ô dimidiate Menander,