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efflorescence of the general mind, in all the departments in which it is destined to attain perfection, takes place at the same time; and that the fruits of autumn are invariably succeeded by the desolation of winter, not less in the moral than in the physical world. It may be difficult to explain how it happens, but the most cursory acquaintance with history has impressed upon all thoughtful observers the melancholy conviction, that the corruption of taste invariably follows its perfection, and that the florid riches of the Corinthian order follow the manly proportions of the Doric, the simple grace of the Ionic, in other branches of literature, taste, and the fine arts, besides architecture. How long did the era of Pericles endure in Grecian-of Augustus, in Roman story? Where is now the immortal genius of Dante or Raphael, in Italy; of Camoens or Velasquez, in Spain? And when the present generation shall have gone to their graves, what traces will remain on the stage of Britain of the mighty genius of Garrick or Siddons; in France, of that of Talma and Mademoiselle Georges ?
The thirst for novelty, the desire of change in the public, the variety of originality in artists, is the main cause of this downward progress. Like the Athenians, in the days of St Paul, highly civilised nations spend their time in the search of something new. Change is incessantly required, even though that change is from perfection to mediocrity. Great reputations become obnoxious from their very greatness : envy criticises, malice derides, mediocrity tires of them. Men weary of hearing men called the Just. This prevailing disposition of human nature may be observed in the perpetual changes of dress, furniture, and architecture, which are constantly going forward, apparently for no other reason but in order to make the new productions different from what the old had been. When the old were perfect, it may readily be conceived what the new must be. Variety, and the desire for praise in the artist, coincide with and foster this tendency in the public. Each one strives to strike out something new, in the hope of earning the praise of originality. Imitation of preceding greatness, or even the inhaling of its spirit, is deemed the indication of a little mind. Hence the invention of new orders in architecture, conspicuous only for their deformity; hence the overloading of former ones with meretricious ornaments; hence the extravagance of Turner's colouring, after the once spotless style of Claude; hence the fantasy and horrors of the modern French drama, after the noble models of Corneille and Racine. To other arts beside architecture, the lines of Thomson are applicable
“ First, unadorned
In addition to these sources of corruption common to the stage with all works of imagination, there are others peculiar to itself, which render the downward progress of that noble art more certain and rapid than any other. These are to be found in the adventitious aids which it derives from the extraneous but far inferior charms of scenery, music, dancing, and decoration. Immense is the danger, incalculable the degradation, which originates in this source.
It is only the greater from the attractive nature, especially to the multitude, of those seductive allies to the naked majesty of thought. Every one knows how strongly they act upon the imagination—how powerfully they stimulate the senses—what a whirl of delightful sensations, for the moment at least, is produced by their combination. If any one doubts it, let him go to the opera of London, Paris, or Naples; his scepticism will probably not survive five minutes after their splendid exhibitions. But though the effect of these half imaginative, half physical displays, when the eye, the ear, and the imagination are alike entranced, is for the time irresistible, they are very different, on the retrospect, from the recollection of the noble pieces of the drama represented by the great masters of the histrionic art. They partake of the fleeting nature of sensual pleasure, so closely resembling, according to the beautiful image of the poet, flakes of snow falling on a wintry stream
" A moment white, then lost for ever."
But the noble lines of Corneille, recited by Talma—the dignified characters of Shakspeare, personated by Siddons
the bewitching scenes of tenderness represented by Miss O'Neil, sink indelibly in the memory, for they are based on the spiritual and immortal part of our nature :
“ Time but the impression deeper makes,
As streams their channels deeper wear." In every country, and in every age, there is a danger that music, dancing, and decoration will supplant tragedy—that the theatre will yield to the amphitheatre—the drama to the melodrama. The very composition of the words we have unconsciously used shows how the corruption takes place. The drama, the theatre, are the root, the origin ; but from it a very different production grows up. In truth, it is much to be feared that it is only in one stage of national progress that the taste for the legitimate drama is prevalent, and that that period, like that of national greatness, genius, or purity of taste, is generally very brief. It is the period when elevated and heroic feelings have not yet lost their ascendency, but the stern realities of war, from which they took their rise, have given place, in a numerous class, to the arts of imagination, the tastes of peace. Grandeur of thought then must have vent, for it exists in the public mind; but the period of action has passed, it finds it only in the charms of fiction or the magic of representation. The age of Pericles succeeding the struggle of the Persian war-of Augustus, following the Roman conquest of the world—of Ariosto and Tasso, consequent on the expiring exploits, but yet vivid dreams of chivalry—of Shakspeare, after the mighty heave of the Reformation-of Corneille, contemporary with the glories of Louis XIV.-of Scott and Schiller, coeval with the fervour of the French Revolution, all denote one and the same stage in the national mind. “In the infancy of a state,” says Bacon, “ arms prevail ; in the middle age, arms and learning, for a short season ; in the decline, commerce and the mechanical arts.” It is during this “short season” that the drama, whether in composition or representation, rises to perfection ; it is in the long period of decline, when “commerce and the mechanical arts” form the common objects of pursuit, that it gives place to the attractions of the melodrama, because man has degenerated into a sensual being.
The romantic drama of modern times has augmented this degrading tendency, because it has at once superseded the necessity of mental power, and introduced the aid of sensual attraction. The simple and stern drama of antiquity admitted of scarcely any aid from the exhibitions of the melodrama. Where there was no change of scene, little deviation from time, no dancing, and three or four characters only in the piece, it was impossible to captivate by the mere phantasmagoria of theatrical display. The recitation of the chorus, the only aid extraneous to the genius of the poet it admitted, mainly rested for its effect on the beauty of lyrical poetry, the magic of association derived from the events referred to. Everything depended on the poet and the actors, and on them alone. The dramatist was a naked gladiator with the sword of genius in his hand; if he could not wield it, he was lost. But the romantic drama has introduced a very different and much more easy field for exertion. The poet and the actor do not descend into it alone, but with a host of allies to sustain their sinking arms. The melody of music, the attractions of dancing, gorgeous displays of dresses, voluptuous exhibitions, processions, and decorations, frequent changes of scene, beautiful representations of nature, the clash of arms, the rolling of drums, the clang of trumpets, the excitement of combat, are freely called in to aid the exertions of thought, to compensate the eloquence of passion. A long continued story is told—the interest of a romance is attempted to be awakened by the exhibition of its chief scenes on the stage everything that painting, music, and even place furnish, are called in to interest the audience. Great, at times, is the effect of this combination ; it has not been disdained by the highest genius. Witness the last scenes of Macbeth, the scaffold scene in Venice Preserved. But such aids are dangerous, for they lead the mind to depend on something foreign to itself. They are the bladders on which mediocrity is sometimes supported on the waves; but it is on his own arm, not foreign aid, that the athletic swimmer depends.
The admission of a lower and less instructed class into the great theatres, in consequence of the increase of wealth and population, has had a powerful effect in augmenting this degrading tendency in the public mind. Even in the time of Voltaire it had become a subject of complaint to that great critic and tragedian, that the class of men who, in the
time of Corneille, habitually attended the theatre, no longer did so; that the noble sentiments, the statesman-like reflections with which his writings abound, were in consequence abandoned; that women constituted the majority everywhere, and gave the tone to everything, and that they would tolerate nothing but love.* But if this was true in Voltaire's time, how much more is it the case at this time, and in this country! The class of persons who frequent the theatre has entirely changed in the last half century. In the early days of George III., the king and queen went once a-week to Drury Lane or Covent Garden ; of course the nobility and fashionable world did the same. Garrick was the habitual and intimate friend of Burke, Johnson, and Reynolds ; Mrs Siddons, the frequent and valued guest of royalty ; she first detected the mental malady which spread such a gloom at intervals over the reign of her able and upright sovereign. Now Covent Garden and Drury Lane, deserted by the nobility, except when they resound to the strains of Italian melody, seldom visited, and then only for form's sake, by the sovereign, have been driven, in self-defence, to exhibitions of music and dancing. The tragic muse no longer is heard within their walls; the first has become a concert room, the second an opera-house.
It is not surprising that this change has taken place. The class who frequent and support the theatres has undergone a total alteration during the last thirty years. Instead of the first in rank and the first in talent-instead of the wits and beauties of the day, the theatres are crowded by a motley assemblage of strangers, foreigners, youths, and Cyprians. Twenty thousand of the first class, who are on an average every evening, in the metropolis, constitute the main support of the drama ; their number is swelled, when parliament is sitting, and a railway mania rages, to eighty or a hundred thousand. It is needless to say
It is needless to say what description of ladies so prodigious an influx of young men, generally with little to do, and much money in their pockets, attracts to the saloons and boxes of the theatres. Equally clear is it that stimulants to the senses constitute the great object of desire to those classes. Elegant women, beautiful dancing, voluptuous music, will carry the day with them before the
* " Commentaires sur Corneille," Cinna, Note to Act 1, scene 1.