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mont and Fletcher.-Dryden.-Congreve Farquhar.-Vanburgh.-Steele.-Addison.
MY DEAR JOHN,
On the subject of comedy I shall, I hope, be less prolix than on the other branch of dramatic poetry; for much of what might be said on this topic is anticipated in my last letter. For good compositions of this kind, as well as of the former class, we must look to the moderns, and not to the antients; indeed, as I observed, a play (strictly so called) may be regarded as a modern invention, at least what the antients have left us are to be considered only as hints on which modern dramatists have successfully improved. Aristophanes was a mere farce writer, a buffoon, almost destitute of the only qua
lities that can render buffoonery tolerable, wit and humour. Plautus was much superior, and some of his dramas have both plot and character. Terence, who is regarded as a translator of Menander, is intolerably flat and tedious, and there is a sameness in all his dramas which renders the perusal of them, to me at least, insufferably irksome. In them there is very little of character or wit, nor indeed any one essential of a good play.
As I rejected Aristotle's rules respecting time and place in tragedy, so I think them equally absurd applied to comedy. The unity of action I would still insist upon for a general reason, which has been frequently repeated in the course of these letters.
The object of comedy is commonly regarded as diametrically opposite to that of tragedy; yet I am not one of that class of critics who condemn those mingled dramas, which sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter. "They approach nearer, says Johnson, than either (tragedy or comedy) to the appearance of life; they shew how great machinations and slender designs.
may promote or obviate one another, and the high and low co-operate in the general system of unavoidable concatenation."
As, however, the provinces of each are distinct, though they may occasionally be united in the same production, we may be allowed to consider them under a distinct character.
The ends and principles of tragedy I formerly stated to be the passions of terror and pity; the ludicrous and absurd are the objects of comedy; and while the former is conversant in the great and important transactions of human life, the latter occupies itself with the lesser views and follies of men. The scene of tragedy is best laid in a different country, or at least at a different period of time; but comedy should be suited to the common level of men, and therefore directly contrary in both these respects. Dr. Blair is of opinion that the scene should be most frequently laid in our own country, or at least not too far distant, to expose the reigning foibles: thus the general idea or definition of comedy is a satirical exhibition of the follies and improprieties of mankind. While this is strictly pursued, comedy may answer an excellent purpose, besides that of
amusement, and become subservient to the improvement of morals; but in licentious hands it may be, as it too frequently is, made an instrument of corruption.
In writing comedy, as well as tragedy, the first object should be to find a really interesting story or plot, not too intricate, but such as will engage the audience, and keep attention alive. The next is to fill the drama with such an exhibition of characters, as will at onee interest and amuse. Much has been said about contrasting the characters, but this is reducing genius to -line and rule. The characters should naturally emanate out of the plot or story, and not be formed upon any mechanical or technical principles. They should be rather diversified than contrasted. To step "from grave to gay, from lively to severe," is a good rule, and. where a contrast naturally presents itself, it will contribute to enliven the scene; but probability should never be sacrificed to it.
In comedy something of exaggeration may be permitted. It is indeed a picture of life, but it is a picture in caricature. I believe, in truth, that any exact picture of life would tire or disgust on the stage, where we expect to see
something different from what we are every day accustomed to; and for this reason such plays as are the most exact copies of life; such as the Careless Husband, and the Jealous Wife, are the least interesting. Yet nature and probability must not be violated too far, for then it ceases to be a representation. The illusion must be kept up to the spectator; he must for the instant believe it real, or the effect is lost. Nothing of a horrid or disgusting nature should be introduced into comedy, for then the cheerfulness and hilarity it is intended to excite would be destroyed. It is needless almost to add, that a comedy should always (for the same reason) have a fortunate conclusion: yet I must remark that, to achieve the end, in many modern comedies all probability is violated. The spendthrift is made frugal, the miser becomes generous; and the greatest contrast is exhibited in the same personage, who is often the complete opposite at the end of the play to what he was in the beginning. The consistency of character is most ably maintained by Shakspeare and Moliere.
The language in comedy should be always adapted to the respective characters.. In the