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individual men ; and the only unity to which the author is restricted by the principles of his art is the unity of interest. But the curious thing is, that in the Romantic drama this difficulty is voluntarily undertaken when no necessity exists for its introduction ; nay, when the principles of the art, as evinced in the works of its greatest masters, forbid its adoption. What would the historian give to be able to dwell only on the brilliant episodes of his period—to be permitted to throw aside the long intervening years of monotony or prose, and dwell only on those where the poetry of existence is brought forth? On what scenes does the romance writer dwell with transport—where does he paint with force and minuteness but in those incidents, generally few and far between in his volumes, which form the fit subject of dramatic composition ? The stage alone is relieved from the necessity of portraying the prosaic adjunct to poetic interest ; the dramatist only is permitted to select the decisive crisis—the burning incident of life--and present it with all the additions of poetry, music, scenery, and personation. Strange that, when thus relieved of the fetters which so grievously restrain the other species of human narrative, he should voluntarily choose to wear them ; that when at liberty to soar on the eagle's wing, he should gratuitously assume the camel's load!
In truth, the adoption of the Romantic style in theatrical composition, and the tenacity with which, despite centuries of failure, it is still adhered to by dramatic poets, is mainly to be ascribed to a secret sense of inability to work up the simpler drama of Greece with the requisite force and effect. Men distrust their own powers in awakening a continued interest for hours from one interest, or the portraying of a single catastrophe. They are fain to borrow the adventitious aid to be derived, as they think, from frequent changes of time and place. They rail at the drama of Athens, as many modern artists do at the paintings of Claude Lorraine, because they feel themselves unable to imitate them. They crowd their canvass with objects, from a secret sense of inability to finish any one with perfect force and fidelity. In that way they flatter themselves that the defects of their composition will be less strongly felt, and the audience will experience something like the enjoyment
of foreign travelling without any great trouble on the part of their conductor, from the brilliant succession of pictures which is presented to their intellectual vision. They forget only one thing, but it generally proves fatal to their whole undertaking. Foreign travelling is delightful ; but it is only so when sufficient time is allowed to see the objects properly, and take in the impression. Without this, it is little more than a grievous fatigue, relieved by one or two splendid but fleeting
pictures painted on the mind. The drama being limited to a three hours' representation, must portray the events of years, if it attempts it, at railway speed. Thence it is, that no greater pleasure is in general felt from its representations than from seeing the tops of villages or the steeples of churches fleeting past when travelling fifty miles an hour on the Great Western. If we would really enjoy nature, we must stop short and sketch one of them, and then we shall feel pleasure indeed.
It is a most grievous but unavoidable consequence of this original departure, as we deem it, from right principle in dramatic composition, that it leads by a natural and almost unavoidable transition to all the extravagances and meretricious aids, the presence of which has so long been felt as the chief disgraces of the British stage. As long as the unities of time and place are adhered to, the poet has no resource but in the force of character, the pathos of incident, the beauty of language. If he does not succeed in these, he is lost. But the moment that he feels himself at liberty to change the scene or time at pleasure, there is no end to the assistance which he will seek to derive from such adventitious support, how foreign soever to the real interest and true principles of his art. Frequent changes of scene, gorgeous pictures of buildings or scenery, brilliant exhibitions of stage effect, processions, battles, storming of castles, the clang of trumpets, the clashing of swords, the discharge of firearms, are all resorted to in order to save the trouble of thought, or conceal mediocrity of conception. It may be that such exhibitions are very attractive, that they draw full houses of children, or of men and women with the minds of children --no small portion of the human race.
But no one will assert that they are the drama, any more than that name belonged to the exhibitions of lions or cameleopards in the
Roman amphitheatre. But the Romantic drama, by the unbounded latitude in point of time, place, and incident which it permits, opens the door to all these substitutes for genius which the great drama, by excluding them, kept carefully closed. Therefore it is that the corruption of taste has been much more rapid and irremediable in the countries by whom it has been adopted, than in those in which the old landmarks were adhered to; and that in the latter the taste for extravagance in the public, and the degradation in the character of dramatic composition, has always been contemporary with the introduction of the Romantic style on the theatre.
To see to what the Romantic style leads, we have only to look at the dramatic pieces founded on the favourite works of fiction which have recently appeared in England and France. Dramas in both countries have been formed on the stories of the most popular novels of Scott, Bulwer, Victor Hugo, Janin, and Eugene Sue. What success have they had ?
What sort of things are they? We pass over the horrors, the indecency, adulterous incest, and murders of the modern French drama, founded on the romances of these popular and imaginative novelists, and come to the dramas founded on our
own great romance writers, against whom no such charges can be brought, and the original plots of which have been constructed with the utmost talent by the greatest master of prose fiction the world ever saw. What has been the fate of the dramas of Ivanhoe, The Antiquary, Guy Mannering, Rob Roy, or Sir Walter's other popular novels ? With the exception of the lowest class of Scotch audiences, who roar on the representations of Dandie Dinmont, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, or the like, it may safely be affirmed that they have everywhere proved entire failures. The talent of a popular actress may for a time keep some of them up ; but left to themselves, they have everywhere sunk to the ground. The reason is evident. The story is so complicated, and leaps so from one thing to another, from a desire to skim over the whole novel, that, except to those who have the original by heart, it is absolutely unintelligible. As to awakening interest, the thing is out of the question—it cannot even be understood but by referring to the original work. What would the inhabitants of New Zealand make of such dramatised romances if revived in their theatres two thousand years hence, as Antigone has lately been with such brilliant effect in these islands? The experiment will never be made, for not one of them will survive ten years. Yes! there is one-Lucia de Lammermoor -- which will be a favourite subject for the drama to the end of time ; for the original story, as already observed, is just a Greek drama in prose. But all the genius of Scott, second neither to that of Æschylus or Sophocles in invention, could not render his brilliant romances fit, with that exception, for the stage, because their construction is at variance with the principles of dramatic composition.
It is said that the sketch of a whole lifetime, or of many years, is essential to the true development of character, which it is the great end of the drama to exhibit, because it is by the varied events of so long a period that we are made acquainted with it in real life. Here again we join issue with our opponents, and do most confidently maintain that the Greek drama, which professes to paint the heart by the paroxysms of passion it undergoes in the crisis of its fate, is much more likely to do it faithfully and effectually than the Romantic
, which portrays the events of a whole lifetime. When it is said that the object of the drama is to paint the human heart, a distinction must be made. become known by ordinary life or moments of crisis, by its habitual turn or impassioned scenes. The novelist, who portrays a whole life, may delineate it in the first way; but the dramatic poet, who is limited to a representation of three hours, must of necessity embrace the latter. But if the delineation of the heart by its expressions or sufferings in moments of passion, when it is laid bare by the vehemence of emotions, be the end in view, it must at once be evident that it is much more likely to be attained by vividly and minutely painting a single decisive crisis, with the acts and feelings to which it gives rise, than by presenting comparatively hurried and imperfect sketches of previous events, when the current of life ran comparatively smoothly. Every one knows how much the character of the French church and nobility rose during the sufferings of the Revolution ; with truth was the instrument of their execution called the “ holy guillotine," from the virtues previously unheard of
The heart may
which it brought to light. Could any dramatic sketch of their previous lives paint the inmost heart of their victims so well as one faithful portrait of their conduct in the supreme hour? Could the mingled greatness and meanness of Napoleon's character be so well.portrayed, by a sketch of his life and impressive scenes from Lodi to St Helena, as by a graphic delineation of his conduct in the decisive crisis at Waterloo ?
It sounds well, no doubt, to say, as Macaulay does, that the Romantic drama exhibits all the plans of a man's life, from the ardour of generous youth to the coolness of experienced age. This
be done in history or romance ; but it is impossible within the limits of a single representation. It is quite enough if, in so short a space, the stage can represent one momentous crisis with adequate power, and really paint the heart as laid bare by its occurrence. He who knows how difficult it is to do that in a single instance, will feel that the effect can only be weakened by repeated draughts upon the sympathy of the audience, from the effect of different events in the same piece. The attempt to do so scarce ever fails to weaken the effect of the whole piece, by distracting the interest and confusing the idea of the spectators. If it succeeds, the result, like the repeated demands which Matthews made on our risible faculties, in general is to produce an effect directly the reverse of what was intended. The comedian, by trying too often to make us laugh, made us in the end more ready to cry; the tragedian, by trying too often to make us cry, succeeds sometimes only in making us laugh.
But what, then, it is said, is to be made of Shakspeare, and how is his transcendant and universally acknowledged greatness, while setting the unities at defiance, to be reconciled with those principles? We accept the challenge ; we take the case of the Bard of Avon, with his deathless fame, and maintain that his dramatic excellence not only affords no impeachment of what has now been advanced, but furnishes its most decisive confirmation.
When it is commonly said that Shakspeare sets the unities at defiance, and assumed that his success has been owing to his disregarding them, the fact is not correctly stated, and the inference is not logically drawn. It is