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Let any man try, in a narrative of long-continued historical events, to excite a deep interest in a space which can be read in three hours, and the powers of Tacitus or Gibbon would at once fail in the attempt. It is quite possible in that brief period to awaken the deepest interest in a single or closely connected series of events, as a battle, a siege, a revolt, a shipwreck ; but wholly impossible to do so with incidents scattered over a long course of
years. The interest so generally felt in epic poetry and romance is excited in the same way, though in a much shorter period. As the colours of these species of composition are more brilliant, the feelings more chastened, the events more select, the characters more prominent, the catastrophe more rapidly rought about, than in real life, so the artist has the means, in a much shorter period, of awakening the interest upon the growth of which the success of his work is chiefly dependant. But nevertheless, even there, it is by comparatively slow degrees, and by reading for a very considerable period, that the interest is created. It is wholly impossible to produce it, or make the story or the characters intelligible, in a few hours. Every scholar recollects the delight with which his mind grew, as it were, under the fire of Homer's conceptions, his taste matured under the charm of Virgil's feeling ; but none will pretend that the intense delight he felt could be awakened, if he had read extracts of their most brilliant passages in a few hours : this pleasure was the feast, his interest the growth, of weeks and months. No reader of Tasso, Milton, or Klopstock, for the first time, would think he could acquire an interest in the Jerusalem Delivered, the Paradise Lost, or the Messiah between tea and supper. Many of their finest passages might be read in that brief space, and their beauty as pieces of poetry fully appreciated; but it would be wholly impossible in so short a time to awaken an interest in the whole story, or the fate of the principal characters. Nevertheless it would be quite possible, in that period, to excite the deepest sympathy with some of their most striking events or episodes taken singly—as the parting of Hector and Andromache, or the death of the Trojan hero, in the Iliad; the love of Dido for Æneas, or the catastrophe of Nisus and Euryalus, in the Æneid; the death of Clorinda, or the flight of Erminia, in the Jerusalem Delivered. The
reason is, that it is possible in a short space to point a single catastrophe with such force and minuteness as to excite the warmest sympathy, but wholly impossible to effect that object within such limits, with a long series of consecutive events.
Again, look at the historical romance or the common novel. No one needs to be told how deep and universal is the interest which the masterpieces in that department awaken. Whatever may be said as to the decline of the public taste for the drama, most certainly there is no symptom of any abatement in the general interest awakened by works of fiction ; but that interest is of comparatively slow growth. It would be impossible to produce it in a few hours. It is excited by the reading of three evenings by the fireside. No one would deem it possible to awaken the interest, or make the characters intelligible, in three hours. The experiment may very easily be made. Let any one take up one of the most popular novels we possess-Ivanhoe, Waverley, Rienzi, Ernest Maltravers, Attila, Philip A ugustus, the Deerslayer, the Last of the Mohicans, the Last of the Barons, or Harold, and read two or three chapters out of each volume, such as might be concluded between seren and ten, to a circle of persons previously unacquainted with these works, and see in what state they are when the intellectual feast has terminated. The theatre always contains a large majority of persons who have not previously witnessed the performance, and are ignorant of the plot.
It is true that to the aid of six or eight chapters culled out of three volumes, the Romantic dramatist brings the auxiliaries of acting, scenery, and stage effect ; but that adds little to the power of exerting deep sympathy or powerful emotion. Such feelings cannot be awakened without minute painting and continuity of action, and they are excluded by the very nature of the Romantic drama. That species of composition proposes to give a picture of the principal events of a long period, as the peristrephic panorama does of the chief scenes of a great space, as the whole course of the Rhine or the Danube. Every one knows how inferior the interest it excites is to those in which the whole skill of the artist and outlay of the proprietor have been exerted on a single picture, as the original round one of Barker and
Burford. The art of panoramic painting bas signally receded, since the moving panorama has been substituted for the fixed one. A series of galloping lithographic sketches of Italy, however highly coloured or skilfully drawn, will never paint that lovely peninsula like a single sunset of Claude in the bay of Naples. Claude himself could not do so in his varied sketches, graphic and masterly as they are. The Romantic drama is the Liber Veritatis ; the Greek drama is the finished Claude in the Doria Palace or the National Gallery. Few persons will hesitate to say which excites the strongest admiration, which they would rather possess.
Performers on the stage are very naturally led to form an erroneous opinion on this subject. Many of the most captivating qualities they possess are seen at once. Physical beauty, elegance of manner, a noble air, a majestic carriage, a lovely figure, a bewitching smile, produce their effect instantaneously. No one needs to be told how quickly and powerfully they speak to the heart, how warmly they kindle the imagination. But that admiration is personal to the artist; it does not extend to the piece, nor can it overcome its imperfections. It gives pleasure often of the very highest kind; but it is a pleasure very different from the true interest of dramatic representation, and cannot be relied on to sustain the interest of an audience for a long period. It is where these powers of the performer are exerted on a drama constructed on its true principles, that the full delight of the theatre is felt. No talents in the performer can sustain a faulty piece. We cannot sit three hours merely to admire the most beautiful and gifted actress that ever trod the boards. Mental sympathy, the rousing of the feelings is required, and that is mainly the work of the poet, or of the performer imbued with his spirit. We daily see masterpieces of the Romantic drama, sustained by the greatest ability on the stage, performed to empty benches. But the theatres were constantly crowded at Athens; the Théatre Français is never empty at Paris. We never saw a copy of Sir Walter Scott's novels at a circulating library, that was not thumbed and pulled about till it was ready to fall
We are the more confirmed in the opinion that these are the true principles of dramatic composition, from observing how generally they are applicable to the historical novel; how clearly they are illustrated by the decided verdict of public opinion pronounced on the works of the most popular writers in that species of composition. The three novels of Sir Walter Scott that are most admired, are Ivanhoe, The Bride of Lammermoor, and The Abbot. Well, these romances have the interest concentrated within the narrowest limits. The Bride of Lammermoor is a Greek drama in prose. It has its simplicity of story, unity of emotion, and terrible concluding catastrophe. Lucia di Lammermoor, performed with signal success in every opera of Europe, is a proof how easily it was dramatised. It is the only one of Sir Walter's novels that, out of Scotland, where local feelings warp the judgment, has been durably successful on the stage. The principal events in Ivanhoe and The Abbot are each contracted within three days; the characters which interest in each, are only two or three in number. Look at Cooper. The great secret of his success is the minuteness and fidelity of his painting, and the graphic form with which heart-stirring events occurring within a very short period are painted. In the most admired of all his novels, The Deerslayer, the whole scene is laid on the borders of a single lake, and the interest arises from the adventures of two girls on its watery bosom. Events in The Pathfinder, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Prairie, are nearly as concentrated in point of time and characters, though, as the story depends in each on the adventures of a party on a journey, a considerable transference of place is of course introduced. The Promessi Sposi of Manzoni has acquired a European reputation, and every reader of it knows how entirely its interest is dependant on the unity of interest and extraordinary fidelity and skill with which, within narrow limits, the characters, events, and still life, are portrayed.
In those romances again, and they are many, in which great latitude in the unities has been taken, it is very rarely that the skill of the artist has succeeded in preventing a painful break in the interest, or cessation in the sympathy, where any considerable transposition of place or overleaping of time occurs. It is very frequent in James's novels to see this done ; but we believe he never yet had a reader in whom it did not excite a feeling of regret. When a chapter
begins — -“We must now transport the reader to a distant part of the country "-or “Many years after the events detailed in the last chapter had occurred, two persons met in a hostelry on the side of a forest,” &c., we may rely upon it that not only is the scene changed, but the interest, for the time at least, is lost. The pictures formed in the mind, the interest awakened in the events, the admiration felt for the characters, are alike at an end. The chain of sympathy is broken with the rupture of the continuity of events. The reader's mind sets out as it were on a new track, in which the sails must be spread and the oars worked afresh. Everything must be done over again ; fresh pictures conjured up in the mind, new interests awakened in the breast from the last starting-point. But it is seldom that such new interests can supply the want of those which have been lost ; or that, where such a system is adopted, even a sustained sympathy can be maintained throughout. We do not say that the first love is exclusive of any other ; but only that the interest is not to be transferred from one to the other, until a considerable time has elapsed, and no small pains have been taken. Several such dislocations of place
, or violations of time, will prove fatal to a novel, though written with the utmost ability, and managed in other respects with the most consummate skill. Every reader of Mr James's romances, which in many respects possess very high merits, must be sensible of the truth of this observation; and all the richness of colouring, and fidelity in drawing, in Sir L. Bulwer's splendid historical romance of Rienzi, the finest composition in that style in existence, cannot take painful impression produced by the long interval which elapses between the commencement of the story, where the characters first appear, its middle, where the real interest is developed, and its termination where the catastrophe occurs. It is on the centre, where unity of interest is strictly kept up, that the success of the work depends.
In the historical romance, however, such diffusion of the events over a long period, though extremely difficult to be managed, in consistence with the preservation of interest in the story, is adverse to no principle ; because it is the very object of that species of mingled truth and fiction to narrate a lengthened course of events as they affected the history of