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of Scott tells what a woful concern it was: the book may now be purchased for a fifth of its original cost. Macaulay has loudly proclaimed the same principles, and lent them the aid of his varied learning and fascinating eloquence. But it is in vain to struggle against a decided opinion of the human race.
Neither Holland House nor the Edinburgh Review can make men permanently overlook the glaring defects of the old English drama, apart from Shakspeare. Its extravagance, its conceits, its indecency, its constant delineation of profligate characters, have blinded men, and blinded them justly, to its vigour, its variety, its exquisite occasional beauty. Real excellence needs no bolstering. Holland House is not required to keep Milton or Pope afloat; the fame of Homer is greater than it was two thousand years ago; every successive generation is charmed by the delicacy of Virgil's taste, and fascinated by the vigour of Dante's conceptions.
These considerations are fitted to cast a serious doubt on the question, how far the true principles of the drama are those which have been embraced by the English school, and may lead us to consider whether the acknowledged inferiority of our tragic writers, since the time of Shakspeare, is not in reality to be ascribed to his transcendent genius having led them astray from the true principles of the art. It will be considered in the sequel, to what cause his acknowledged success has been owing, and whether his finest dramas, those which chiefly retain their popularity, are not in reality constructed on the Grecian model.
But, in the mean time, let it be considered what in reality the drama can do, and what limits are imposed upon it, not by the arbitrary rules of critics, but by the lasting nature of things.
The drama is restricted by the well-known limits of human patience to a representation of three hours. Experience has everywhere proved that the greatest genius, both in the poet and performer, cannot keep alive interest, or avert weariness, beyond that period. The spectators sit still in their places the whole time. Whatever changes of scene or external objects to look at are introduced, the audience themselves are motionless. It is to persons thus situated, and within this time, that theatrical representa
tions are addressed. They expect, and with reason, to be amused and interested in comedy—moved and melted in tragedy. It is for this they go to the theatre—for this they pay their money.
Writers and actors are equally aware that this is the case. Then what course do the Greek and the Romantic school respectively follow to attain this object?
Both in some respects follow the same course, or rather both make use, for the main part, of the same materials. It is universally acknowledged, that it is essential to the success of the drama, in all its branches, that the plot be interesting, the characters forcible, the ideas natural, the attention constantly kept up. In tragedy, by far its noblest department, it is indispensable, in addition, that the feelings should be vehemently excited in the spectators, and the human heart laid bare, by the most violent passions, in the characters on the stage. Aristotle expressly says, that it is the delineation of passions which is the object of tragedy. In order to achieve this object, all are agreed that some permanent characters must be selected, generally from those known to history, to whom striking and tragic events have occurred; and it is in the delineation of the passions which those events excite, and the interest they awaken in the breast of the spectators, that the art of the writer consists. So far both parties are agreed; but they differ widely in the methods which they respectively take to attain this object.
The Romantic dramatist, overstepping the bounds of time and place, professes in three hours to portray the principal events of years—it may be of a whole lifetime. He selects the prominent events of his hero's or heroine's career--the salient angles, as it were, of human existence -and brings them forward in different scenes of his brief representation. Years often intervene between the commencement of his piece and its termination: the spectator is transported hundreds, it may be thousands of miles, by a mere mechanical sleight-of-band in the scene-shifter, or between the acts. The piece may begin at Rome and end at Philippi ; it may open on a heath in Morayshire, and close at Dunsinane Castle, near the Tay. Seventeen years may elapse, as in one of Shakspeare's, between the
third and fourth act; five between the first and second. The drama, constructed on these principles, does not represent a short period, into which the crisis, as it were, of a whole lifetime is concentrated; but it gives sketches of the whole life itself, from the commencement of its eventful period, to its termination, The poet chooses the most exciting scenes out of the three volumes of the historical novel, and brings these scenes on the stage in a few hours. As the drama, constructed on this principle, professes to portray the changes of real life, so it admits, it is thought, of that intermixture of the serious and the comic, which the actual world exhibits; and willingly transports the spectator from the most highly wrought scenes of passion, the deepest accents of woe, to the burlesque of extravagant characters, or the picture of vulgar life. This is deemed admissible, because it is natural; and certainly no one can have gone from the drawing-room, or the library, to the stage-coach or the steam-boat, without seeing that it exhibits at least a true picture of the varied phantasmagoria which existence presents.
The Greek dramatists, and their successors in modern Europe, proceed upon an entirely different principle. Having made their selection of the characters and the events on which their piece is to be constructed, they pitch upon that period in their progress in wbich matters were brought to a crisis, and, for good or for evil, their destiny was accomplished. Having done this, they portray the minutest incidents of that brief period with the utmost care, and exert all their strength on the graphic painting on which every artist knows the awakening of interest is almost entirely dependant. The previous history of the principal personages is described in dialogue at the commencement of the piece, so as to make the spectators aware both of the great lives of the characters which are brought before them, and of the antecedent events which had brought matters to their present crisis. Having carried them to this point, the crisis itself is portrayed at full length, and with all the power and pathos of which the artist is capable. The poet does not pretend to narrate the campaign from its commencement to its termination : he commences his piece with the beginning of the last battle,
and exerts all his strength in painting the decisive charge. He does not give the voyage from its commencement to its termination, with its long periods of monotonous weariness: he confines himself to the brief and terrible scene of the shipwreck. As the crisis and catastrophe of life is thus alone represented, and everything depends on the interest excited by its development, so nothing is admitted which can disturb the unity of the emotion, or interrupt the flow of the sympathy which it is the great object of the piece from first to last to awaken.
If it were possible to create the same interest, or delineate character and passion as completely, by brief and consequently imperfect sketches of a whole lifetime, as it is by a minute and glowing representation of its most eventful period, much might be advanced with justice in favour of the Romantic school of the drama. Our objection is, that this is impossible; and that the failure of the English theatre, since the time of Shakspeare, is entirely to be ascribed to this impossibility. And the impossibility is owing to the length of time which it requires, by narrative or representation, to kindle that warm and glowing image, or awaken those ardent feelings in the mind of another, upon which the emotion of taste and the success of all the Fine Arts depend.
In the arts which address themselves to the eye, and to the heart through it, it is possible to produce a very strong impression almost instantaneously. A beautiful woman has only to be seen to be admired ; a charming landscape bursts upon the sight with immediate and almost magical force. The impression produced by the finest objects in Europethe sun setting on the Jungfrauhorn, the interior of St Peter's, the fall of Schaffhausen, the view from the Acropolis of Athens
, Constantinople from the Seraglio Point, the bay of Naples from the Belvidere, for example is such, that though seen only for a few minutes, it may almost be said seconds, an impression is made, a picture is painted, on the mind's retina, which can never be effaced. Painting, as it imitates external nature, so shares in the rapidity and, in the hands of great masters, durability of its impressions. Sculpture and architecture have the same advantage. Yet even in these arts, the productions of which require only to be seen to be admired, it is well known that the impression, strong as it is at first, is, with all persons of a cultivated mind, greatly increased by repeated inspections. The common observation, that a fine painting or statue grows upon you the oftener you see it, and that “ Time but the impression deeper makes,” sufficiently proves that it is not at once, even in those arts which speak at once to the eye, that the soul of the artist is transferred to that of the spectator.
But the case is entirely different with those arts—such as history, romance, epic poetry, or the drama—which do not at once produce a visible object to the mind, but give descriptions or dialogues by which the reader or spectator is required to form a mental object or awaken a mental interest of his own creation, though from the materials furnished, and under the guidance of the genius of the artist. It is not instantaneously that this can be done : on the contrary, it is by very slow degrees, and many successive efforts, that the inward picture is created in the mind, the absorbing interest awakened in the heart, which gives the pleasure or rouses the sympathy which it is the object of the writer to communicate. A very little reflection will be sufficient to show that this observation is well founded, in all the arts of narrative or description. And nothing, we apprehend, can be clearer than that the Romantic Drama bas failed because it professes, within limits, and by means which render the attempt hopeless, to excite this interest.
Notwithstanding the well-known and proverbial dulness of history, there are many historical compositions which do succeed in awakening a durable and sometimes absorbing interest in the mind of the reader. Probably few works professedly addressed to the imagination have awakened in many breasts so deep and lasting an interest as the narrative of Livy, the biography of Tacitus, the pictured paye of Gibbon. Such works are almost always complained of as dull at first; but the interest gradually waxes warmer as the narrative proceeds; the feelings become roused on one side, or in favour of one hero or another, in the great drama of the world ; and not unfrequently in the end the most attractive works of imagination are laid aside for the annals of real events. But how is it that this interest is awakened? By the study of months, sometimes of years; by an interest produced by the reading of a whole winter by the fireside.