Love and Business
With submission, sir, my performance in the practical part of poetry is no sufficient warrant for your pressing me in the speculative. I have no foundation for a legislator, and the two or three little plays I have written, are cast carelessly into the world, without any bulk of preface, because I was not so learned in the laws, as to move in defence of a bad case. Why then should a compliment go farther with me, than my own interest? Don't mistake me, sir, here is nothing that could make for my advantage in either preface or dedication, no speculative curiosities, nor critical remarks, only some present sentiments which hazard, not study, brings into my head, without any preliminary method or cogitation.
Among the many disadvantages attending poetry, none seems to bear a greater weight, than that so many set up for judges, when so very few understand a tittle of the matter. Most of our other arts and sciences bear an awful distance in their prospect, or with a bold and glittering varnish dazzle the eyes of the weak-sighted vulgar. The divine stands wrapped up in his cloud of mysteries, and the amused laity must pay tithes and veneration to be kept in obscurity, grounding their hopes of future knowledge on a competent stock of present ignorance (in the greater part of the Christian world this is plain.) With what deference and resignation does the bubbled client commit his fees and cause into the clutches of the law, where assurance beards justice by prescription, and the wrong side is never known to make its patron blush. Physic and logic are so strongly fortified by their impregnable terms of art, and the mathematician lies so cunningly entrenched within his lines and circles, that none but those of their party dare peep into their puzzling designs.
Thus the generality of mankind is held at a gazing distance, whose ignorance not presuming perhaps to an open applause, is yet satisfied to pay a blind veneration to the very faults of what they don't understand.
Poetry alone, and chiefly the drama, lies open to the insults of all pretenders. She was one of nature's eldest offsprings, whence by her birthright and plain simplicity she pleads a genuine likeness to her mother, born in the innocence of time, she provided not against the assaults of succeeding ages, and, depending altogether on the generous end of her invention, neglected those secret supports and serpentine devices used by other arts that wind themselves into practice for more subtleand politic designs. Naked she came into the world, and 'tis to be feared, like its professors, will go naked out.
'Tis a wonderful thing, that most men seem to have a great veneration for poetry, yet will hardly allow a favourable word to any piece of it that they meet, like your virtuosos in friendship, that are so ravished with the nicety of the virtue, that they can find no person worth their intimate acquaintance. The favour of being whipped at school for Martial's Epigrams, or Ovid's Epistles, is sufficient privilege for turning pedagogue, and lashing all their successors, and it would seem by the fury of their correction, that the ends of the rod were still in their buttocks. The scholar calls upon us for decorums and economy, the courtier cries out for wit and purity of style, the citizen for humour and ridicule, the divines threaten us for immodesty, and the ladies will have an intrigue. Now here are a multitude of critics, whereof the twentieth person only has read quæ genus,<22> and yet everyone is a critic after his own way, that is, such a play is best, because I like it. A very familiar argument, methinks, to prove the excellence of a play, and to which an author would be very unwilling to appeal for his success. Yet such is the unfortunate state of dramatic poetry, that it must submit to such judgments, and by the censure or approbation of such variety it must either stand or fall. But what salvo, what redress for this inconvenience? Why, without all dispute, an author must endeavour to pleasure that part of the audience, who can lay the best claim to a judicious and impartial reflection. But before he begins, let him well consider to what division that claim does most properly belong. The scholar will be very angry at me for making that the subject of a question, which is self-evident without any dispute: for, says he, who can pretend to understand poetry better than we, who have read Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, &c. at the university? What knowledge can outstrip ours, that is founded upon the criticisms of Aristotle, Scaliger, Vossius, and the like? We are the better sort, and therefore may claim this as a due compliment to our learning, and if a poet can please us, who are the nice and severe critics, he cannot fail to bring in the rest of an inferior rank.
I should be very proud to own my veneration for learning, and to acknowledge any compliment due to the better sort upon that foundation, but I'm afraid the learning of the better sort is not confined to college studies, for there is such a thing as reason without syllogism, knowledge without Aristotle, and languages besides Greek and Latin. We shall likewise find in the court and city several degrees, superior to those at commencements. From all which I must beg the scholar's pardon, for not paying him the compliment of the better sort, (as he calls it) and in the next place, inquire into the validity of his title from his knowledge of criticism, and the course of his studies.
I must first beg one favour of the graduate—"Sir, here is a pit full of Covent-Garden gentlemen, a gallery full of cits,<23> a hundred ladies of court education, and about two hundred footmen of nice morality, who, having been unmercifully teased with a parcel of foolish, impertinent, irregular plays all this last winter, make it their humble request, that you would oblige them with a comedy of your own making, which they don't question will give them entertainment." "O, sir," replies the square cap,<24> "I have long commiserated the condition of the English audience, that has been forced to take up with such wretched stuff, as lately has crowded the stage, your jubilees and your foppingtons, and such irregular impertinence, that no man of sense could bear the perusal of 'em. I have long intended, out of pure pity to the stage, to write a perfect piece of this nature, and now, since I am honoured by the commands of so many, my intentions shall immediately be put in practice.
So to work he goes, old Aristotle, Scaliger, with their commentators, are lugged down from the high shelf, and the moths are dislodged from their tenement of years. Horace, Vossius, Heinsius, Hedelin, Rapin,<25> with some half a dozen more, are thumbed and tossed about, to teach the gentleman, forsooth, to write a comedy, and here is he furnished with unity of action, continuity of action, extent of time, preparation of incidents, episodes, narrations, deliberations, didactics, pathetics, monologues, figures, intervals, catastrophes, choruses, scenes, machines, decorations, &c.: a stock sufficient to set up any mountebank in Christendom, and if our new author would take an opportunity reading a lecture upon his play in these terms, by the help of a zany, and a joint-stool, his scenes might go off as well as the doctors' packets,<26> but the misfortune of it is, he scorns all application to the vulgar, and will please the better sort, as he calls his own sort. Pursuant therefore to his philosophical dictates, he first chooses a single plot, because must agreeable to the regularity of criticism, no matter whether it affords business enough for diversion or surprise. He would not for the world introduce a song or dance, because his play must be one entire action. We must expect no variety of incidents, because the exactness of his three hours won't give him time for their preparation. The unity of place admits no variety of painting and prospect, by which mischance perhaps, we shall lose the only good scenes in the play. But no matter for that, this play is a regular play, this play has been examined and approved by such and such gentlemen, who are staunch critics and masters of art, and this play I will have acted, look'ee, Mr. Rich,<27> you may venture to lay out a hundred and fifty pound for dressing this play, for it was written by a great scholar, and fellow of a college.
Then a grave dogmatical prologue is spoken, to instruct the audience what should please them, that this play has a new and different cut from the farce they see every day, that this author writes after the manner of the ancients, and here is a piece according to the model of the Athenian drama. Very well! This goes off humdrum, so, so. Then the players go to work on a piece of hard knotty stuff, where they can no more show their art, than a carpenter can upon a piece of steel. Here is the lamp and the scholar in every line, but not a syllable of the poet. Here is elaborate language, sounding epithets, flights of words that strike the clouds, whilst the poor sense lags after like the lanthorn in the tail of the kite, which appears only like a star, while the breath of the players' lungs has strength to bear it up in the air.
But the audience, willing perhaps to discover his ancient model, and the Athenian drama, are attentive to the first act or two, but not finding a true genius of poetry, nor the natural air of free conversation, without any regard to his regularity, they betake themselves to other work, not meeting the diversion they expected on the stage, they shift for themselves in the pit, everyone turns about to his neighbour in a mask, and for default of entertainment now, they strike up for more diverting scenes. When the play is done, and though the play be regular as Aristotle, and modest as Mr. Collier could wish, yet it promotes more lewdness in the consequence, and procures more effectually for intrigue than any rover, libertine, or old bachelor whatsoever. At last comes the epilogue, which pleases the audience very well, because it sends them away, and terminates the fate of the poet, the patentees rail at him, the players curse him, the town damns him, and he may bury his copy in Paul's, for not a bookseller about it will put it in print.
This familiar account, sir, I would not have you charge to my invention, for there are precedents sufficient in the world to warrant it in every particular; the town has been often disappointed in those critical plays, and some gentlemen that have been admired in their speculative remarks have been ridiculed in the practice. All the authorities, all the rules of antiquity have proved too weak to support the theatre, whilst others who have dispensed with the critics, and taken a latitude in the economy of their plays, have been the chief supporters of the stage, and the ornament of the drama, this is so visibly true, that I need bring in no instances to enforce it; but you say, sir, 'tis a paradox that has often puzzled your understanding, and you lay your commands upon me to solve it, if I can.
Look'ee, sir, to add a value to my complaisance to you, I must tell you in the first place, that I run as great a hazard in nibbling at this paradox of poetry, as Luther did by touching transubstantiation, 'tis a mystery that the world has sweetly slept in so long, that they take it very ill to be wakened, especially being disturbed of their rest, when there is no business to be done but I think that Bellarmine<28> was once as orthodox as Aristotle, and since the German doctor has made a shift to hew down the cardinal, I will have a tug with ipse dixit,<29> though I die for't.
But in the first place, I must beg you, sir, to lay aside your superstitious veneration for antiquity, and the usual expressions on that score, that the present age is illiterate, or their taste is vitiated, that we live in the decay of time, and the dotage of the world is fallen to our share. 'Tis a mistake, sir, the world was never more active or youthful, and true downright sense was never more universal than at this very day. 'Tis neither confined to one nation in the world, nor to one part of a city, 'tis remarkable in England as well as France, and good genuine reason is nourished by the cold of Swedeland as by the warmth of Italy, 'tis neither abdicated the court with the late reigns, nor expelled the city with the play-house bills, you may find it in the grand jury at Hicks Hall,<30> and upon the bench sometimes among the justices; then why should we be hampered so in our opinions, as if all the ruins of antiquity lay so heavily on the bones of us, that we could not stir hand nor foot no, no, sir, ipse dixit is removed long ago, and all the rubbish of old philosophy, that in a manner buried the judgment of mankind for many centuries, is now carried off, the vast tomes of Aristotle and his commentators are all taken to pieces, and their infallibility is lost with all persons of a free and unprejudiced reason.
Then above all men living, why should the poets be hoodwinked at this rate, and by what authority should Aristotle's rules of poetry stand so fixed and immutable? Why, by the authority of two thousand years standing, because through this long revolution of time the world has still continued the same—by the authority of their being received at Athens, a city, the very same with London in every particular, their habits the same, their humours alike, their public transactions and private societies à la mode France; in short, so very much the same in every circumstance, that Aristotle's criticisms may give rules to Drury Lane, the Areopagus<31> give judgment upon a case in the King's Bench, and old Solon<32> shall give laws to the House of Commons.
But to examine this matter a little farther, all arts and professions are compounded of these two parts, a speculative knowledge, and a practical use, and from an excellency in both these any person is raised to eminence and authority in his calling. The lawyer has his years of student in the speculative part of his business, and, when promoted to bar, he falls upon the practice, which is the trial of his ability. Without all dispute the great Coke<33> has had many a tug at the bar, before he could raise himself to the bench, and had made sufficiently evident his knowledge of the laws in his pleadings before he was admitted to the authority of giving judgment upon the case.
The physician, to gain credit to his prescriptions, must labour for a reputation in the cure of such and such distempers, and before he sets up for a Galen or Hippocrates, must make many experiments upon his patients. Philosophy itself, which is a science the most abstract from practice, has its public acts and disputations, it is raised gradually, and its professor commences doctor by degrees, he has the labour of maintaining theses, methodising his arguments, and clearing objections, his memory and understanding is often puzzled by oppositions couched in fallacies and sophisms, in solving all which he must make himself remarkable, before he pretends to impose his own systems upon the world. Now if the case be thus in philosophy, or in any branch thereof, as in ethics and physic, which are called sciences, what must be done in poetry, that is denominated an art, and consequently implies a practice in its perfection?
Is it reasonable that any person that has never writ a distich of verses in his life, should set up for a dictator in poetry, and without the least practice in his own performance, must give laws and rules to that of others? Upon what foundation is poetry made so very cheap, and so easy a task, by these gentlemen? An excellent poet is the single production of an age, when we have crowds of philosophers, physicians, lawyers, divines, every day, and all of them competently famous in their callings in the two learned commonwealths of Rome and Athens, there was but one Virgil, and one Homer, yet have we above a hundred philosophers in each, and most part of 'em, forsooth, must have a touch at poetry, drawing it into divisions, sub-divisions, &c., when the wit of 'em all set together, would not amount to one of Martial's epigrams
Of all these I shall mention only Aristotle, the first and great law-giver, in this respect, and upon whom all that followed him are only commentators among all the vast traits of this voluminous author, we don't find any fragment of an epic poem, or the least scene of a play, to authorise his skill and excellence in that art. Let it not be alleged, that for aught we know he was an excellent poet, but his more serious studies would not let him enter upon affairs of this nature, for everybody knows, that Aristotle was no Cynic,<32> but lived in the splendour and air of the court, that he loved riches as much as others of that station; and being sufficiently acquainted with his pupil's affection to poetry, and his complaint that he wanted an Homer to aggrandize his actions, he would never have slipped such an opportunity of farther ingratiating himself in the king's favour, had he been conscious of any abilities in himself, for such an undertaking, and having a more noble and copious theme in the exploits of Alexander, than what inspired the blind bard in his hero Achilles. If his epistles to Alexander were always answered with a considerable present, what might he have expected, from a work like Homer's upon so great a subject, dedicated to so mighty a prince, whose greatest fault was his vainglory, and that took such pains to be deified among men.
It may be objected, that all the works of Aristotle are not recovered; and among those that are lost, some essays of this kind might have perished. This supposition is too weakly founded, for although the works themselves might have escaped us, 'tis more than probable that some hint or other, either in the life of the conqueror, or philosopher, might appear, to convince us of such a production: besides, as 'tis believed, he writ philosophy, because we have his books; so, I dare swear, he writ no poetry, because none is extant, nor any mention made thereof that ever I could hear of.
But stay—without any farther enquiry into the poetry of Aristotle, his ability that way is sufficiently apparent by that excellent piece he has left behind him upon that subject—by your favour, sir, this is petitio principii,<35> or, in plain English, give me the sword in my own hand, and I'll fight with you—have but a little patience till I make a flourish or two, and then, if you are pleased to demand it, I'll grant you that and everything else.
How easy were it for me to take one of Doctor Tillotson's sermons, and out of the economy of one of these discourses, trump you up a pamphlet, and call it, the Art of Preaching. In the first place I must take a text, and here I must be very learned upon the etymology of this word text, then this text must be divided into such and such partitions, which partitions must have their hard names and derivations, then these must be spun into sub-divisions, and these backed by proofs of scripture, Ratiocinati Oratoris, Ornamenta Figurarum Rhetoricarum, and Authoritas Patrum Ecclesiæ,<36> with some rules and directions how these ought to be managed and applied; and closing up this difficult pedantry with the dimensions of time for such an occasion, you will pay me the compliment of an excellent preacher, and affirm, that any sermon whatsoever, either by a presbyter at Geneva, or Jesuit in Spain, that deviates from these rules, deserves to be hissed, and the priest kicked out of his pulpit. I must doubt your complaisance in this point, Sir, for you know the forms of eloquence are divers, and ought to be suited to the different humour and capacities of an audience. You are sensible, sir, that the fiery choleric humour of one nation must be entertained and moved by other means than the heavy phlegmatic complexion of another; and I have observed in my little travels, that a sermon of three quarters of an hour, that might please the congregation at St. James's, would never satisfy the meeting-house in the City, where people expect more for their money, and having more temptations of roguery, must have a larger portion of instruction.
Be pleased to hear another instance of a different kind, though to the same purpose. I go down to Woolwich, and there, upon a piece of paper I take the dimensions of the Royal Sovereign,<37> and from hence I frame a model of a man of war, I divide the ship into three principal parts, the keel, the hull, and the rigging; I subdivide these into their proper denominations, and by the help of a sailor, give you all the terms belonging to every rope, and every office in the whole ship. Will you from hence infer, that I am an excellent shipwright, and that this model is proper for a trading junk upon the Volga, or a Venetian galley in the Adriatic sea?
But you'll object, perhaps, that this is no parallel case, because that Aristotle's Ars Poetica was never drawn from such slight observations, but was the pure effect of his immense reason, through a nice inspection into the very bottom and foundation of nature.
To this I answer, that verity is eternal, as that the truth of two and two making four was as certain in the days of Adam as it is now, and that, according to his own position, nature is the same apud omnes gentes.<38> Now if his rules of poetry were drawn from certain and immutable principles, and fixed on the basis of nature, why should not his Ars Poetica be as efficacious now, as it was two thousand years ago? And why should not a single plot, with perfect unity of time and place, do as well at Lincoln's Inn Fields, as at the play-house in Athens? No, no, sir, I am apt to believe that the philosopher took no such pains in poetry as you imagine. The Greek was his mother tongue, and Homer was read with as much veneration among the school-boys, as we learn our catechism. Then where was the great business for a person so expert in mood and figure, as Aristotle was, to range into some order a parcel of terms of art, drawn from his observation upon the Iliad, and these to call the model of an epic poem. Here, sir, you may imagine, that I am caught, and have all this while been spinning a thread to strangle myself, one of my main objections against Aristotle's criticisms, is drawn from his non-performance in poetry. And now I affirm, that his rules are extracted from the greatest poet that ever lived, which gives the utmost validity to the precept, and that is all we contend for.
Look ye, sir, I lay it down only for a supposition, that Aristotle's rules for an epic poem were extracted from Homer's Iliad, and if a supposition has weighed me down, I have two or three more of an equal balance to turn the scale.
The great esteem of Alexander the Great for the works of old Homer, is sufficiently testified by antiquity, insomuch that he always slept with the Iliad under his pillow. Of this the Stagirite<39> to be sure was not ignorant, and what more proper way of making his court could a man of letters devise, than by saying something in commendation of the king's favourite? A copy of commendatory verses was too mean, and perhaps out of his element. Then something he would do in his own way, a book must be made of the art of poetry, wherein Homer is proved a poet by mood and figure, and his perfection transmitted to posterity, and if Prince Arthur had been in the place of the Iliad, we should have had other rules for epic poetry, and Doctor B—re had carried the bays from Homer, in spite of all the critics in Christendom, but whether Aristotle writ those rules to compliment his pupil, or whether he would make a stoop at poetry, to show that there was no knowledge beyond the flight of his genius, there is no reason to allow that Homer compiled his heroic poem by those very rules which Aristotle has laid down.
For granting that Aristotle might pick such and such observations from this piece, they might be mere accidents resulting casually from the composition of the work, and not any of the essential principles of the poem. How usual is it for critics to find out faults, and create beauties, which the authors never intended for such, and how frequently do we find authors run down in those very parts, which they designed for the greaten ornament how natural is it for aspiring ambitious schoolmen to attempt matters of the highest reach, the wonderful creation of the world, (which nothing but the almighty power that ordered it, can describe) is brought into mood and figure by the arrogance of philosophy but till I can believe that the vertigos of Cartesius,<41> or the atoms of Epicurus can determine the almighty fiat, they must give me leave to question the infallibility of their rules in respect of poetry.
Had Homer himself by the same inspiration that he writ his poem, left us any rules for such a performance, all the world must have owned it for authentic. But he was too much a poet to give rules to that, whose excellence he knew consisted in a free and unlimited flight of imagination, and to describe the spirit of poetry, which alone is the true art of poetry, he knew to be as impossible, as for human reason to teach the gift of prophecy by a definition.
Neither is Aristotle to be allowed any farther knowledge in dramatic than in epic poetry. Euripides, whom he seems to compliment by rules adapted to the model of his plays, was either his contemporary, or lived but a little before him. He was not insensible how much this author was the darling of the city, as appeared by the prodigious expense disbursed by the public for the ornament of his plays, and 'tis probable, he might take this opportunity of improving his interest with the people, indulging their inclination by refining upon the beauty of what they admired and besides all this, the severity of dramatic rage was so fresh in his memory in the hard usage that his brother soph<42> not long before met with upon the stage, that it was convenient to humour the reigning wit, lest a second Aristophanes should take him to task with as little mercy as poor Socrates found at the hands of the first.
I have talked so long to lay a foundation for these following conclusions, Aristotle was no poet, and consequently not capable of giving instructions in the art of poetry, his Ars Poetica are only some observations drawn from the works of Homer and Euripides, which may be mere accidents resulting casually from the composition of the works, and not any of the essential principles on which they are compiled. That without giving himself the trouble of searching into the nature of poetry, he has only complimented the heroes of wit and valour of his age, by joining with them in their approbation, with this difference, that their applause was plain, and his more scholastic.
But to leave these only as suppositions to be relished by every man at his pleasure, I shall without complimenting any author, either ancient or modern, inquire into the first invention of comedy, what were the true designs and honest intentions of that art, and from a knowledge of the end, seek out the means, without one quotation of Aristotle, or authority of Euripides.
In all productions either divine or humane, the final cause is the first mover, because the end or intention of any rational action must first be considered, before the material or efficient causes are put in execution. Now to determine the final cause of comedy we must run back beyond the material and formal agents, and take it in its very infancy, or rather in the very first act of its generation, when its primary parent, by proposing such or such an end of his labour, laid down the first sketches or shadows of the piece. Now as all arts and sciences have their first rise from a final cause, so 'tis certain that they have grown from very small beginnings, and that the current of time has swelled 'em to such a bulk, that nobody, can find the fountain, by any proportion between the head and the body, this, with the corruption of time, which has debauched things from their primitive innocence, to selfish designs and purposes, renders it difficult to find the origin of any offspring so very unlike its parent.
This is not only the case of comedy, as it stands at present, but the condition also of the ancient theatres, when great men made shows of this nature a rising step to their ambition, mixing many lewd and lascivious representations to gain the favour of the populace, to whose taste and entertainment the plays were chiefly adopted. We must therefore go higher than either Aristophanes, or Menander, to discover comedy in its primitive institution, if we would draw any moral design of its invention to warrant and authorise its continuance.
I have already mentioned the difficulty of discovering the invention of any art in the different figure it makes by succession of improvements; but there is something in the nature of comedy, even in its present circumstances, that bears so great a resemblance to the philosophical mythology of the ancients, that old Æsop must wear the bays as the first and original author, and whatever alterations or improvements farther application may have subjoined, his fables gave the first rise and occasion.
Comedy is no more at present than a well-framed tale handsomely told, as an agreeable vehicle for counsel or reproof. This is all we can say for the credit of its institution; and is the stress of its charter for liberty and toleration. Then where should we seek for a foundation, but in Æsop's symbolical way of moralizing upon tales and fables, with this difference, that his stories were shorter than ours: he had his tyrant Lion, his statesman Fox, his beau Magpie, his coward Hare, his bravo Ass, and his buffoon Ape, with all the characters that crowd our stages every day, with this distinction nevertheless, that Æsop made his beasts speak good Greek, and our heroes sometimes can't talk English.
But whatever difference time has produced in the form, we must in our own defence stick to the end, and intention of his fables. Utile dulci<43> was his motto, and must be our business, we have no other defence against the presentment of the grand jury, and for aught I know it might prove a good means to mollify the rigour of that persecution, to inform the inquisitors, that the great Æsop was the first inventor of these poor comedies that they are prosecuting with so much eagerness and fury, that the first laureate was as just, as prudent, as pious, as reforming, and as ugly as any of themselves. And that the beasts which are lugged upon the stage by the horns are not caught in the city, as they suppose, but brought out of Æsop's own forest. We should inform them besides, that those very tales and fables which they apprehend as obstacles to reformation, were the main instruments and machines used by the wise Æsop for its propagation, and as he would improve men by the policy of beasts, so we endeavour to reform brutes with the examples of men. Fondlewife<44> and his young spouse are no more than the eagle and cockle, he wanted teeth to break the shell himself, so somebody else run away with the meat,—the Fox in the play, is the same with the Fox in the fable, who stuffed his guts so full, that he could not get out at the same hole he came in; so both Reynards being delinquents alike, come to be trussed up together. Here are precepts, admonitions, and salutary innuendos for the ordering of our lives and conversations couched in these allegories and allusions. The wisdom of the ancients was wrapped up in veils and figures, the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the history of the heathen gods are nothing else; but if these pagan authorities give offence to their scrupulous consciences; let them but consult the tales and parables of our Saviour in holy writ, and they may find this way of instruction to be much more Christian than they imagine. Nathan's fable of the poor man's lamb had more influence on the conscience of David,<45> than any force of downright admonition. So that by ancient practice, and modern example, by the authority of pagans, Jews, and Christians, the world is furnished with this so sure, so pleasant, and expedient an art, of schooling mankind into better manners. Now here is the primary design of comedy, illustrated from its first institution, and the same end is equally alleged for its daily practice and continuance—then without all dispute, whatever means are most proper and expedient for compassing this end and intention, they must be the just rules of comedy, and the true art of the stage.
We must consider then, in the first place, that our business lies not with a French or a Spanish audience, that our design is not to hold forth to ancient Greece, nor to moralize upon the vices and defaults of the Roman commonwealth. No, no—an English play is intended for the use and instruction of an English audience, a people not only separated from the rest of the world by situation, but different also from other nations as well in the complexion and temperament of the natural body, as in the constitution of our body politic. As we are a mixture of many nations, so we have the most unaccountable medley of humours among us of any people upon earth, these humours produce variety of follies, some of 'em unknown to former ages, these new distempers must have new remedies, which are nothing but new counsels and instructions.
Now, sir, if our utile, which is the end, be different from the ancients, pray let our dulce, which is the means, be so too, for you know that to different towns there are different ways, or if you would have it more scholastically, ad diversos fines non idem conducet medium, or mathematically, one and the same line cannot terminate in two centres. But waiving this manner of concluding by induction, I shall gain my point a nearer way, and draw it immediately from the first principle I set down. That we have the most unaccountable medley of humours among us of any nation upon earth; and this is demonstrable from common experience: we shall find a Wildair<46> in one corner, and a Morose<47> in another, nay, the space of an hour or two shall create such vicissitudes of temper in the same person, that he can hardly be taken for the same man. We shall have a fellow bestir his stumps from chocolate to coffee-house with all the joy and gaiety imaginable, though he want a shilling to pay for a hack; whilst another, drawn about in a coach and six, is eaten up with the spleen, and shall loll in state, with as much melancholy, vexation, and discontent, as if he were making the tour of Tyburn. Then what sort of a dulce, (which I take for the pleasantry of the tale, or the plot of the play) must a man make use of to engage the attention of so many different humours and inclinations. Will a single plot satisfy everybody? Will the turns and surprises that may result naturally from the ancient limits of time, be sufficient to rip open the spleen of some, and physic the melancholy of others, screw up the attention of a rover, and fix him to the stage, in spite of his volatile temper, and the temptation of a mask? To make the moral instructive, you must make the story diverting, the splenetic wit, the beau courtier, the heavy citizen, the fine lady, and her fine footman, come all to be instructed, and therefore must all be diverted; and he that can do this best, and with most applause, writes the best comedy, let him do it by what rules he pleases, so they be not offensive to religion, and good manners.
But hic labor, hoc opus,<48> how must this secret of pleasing so many different tastes be discovered? Not by tumbling over volumes of the ancients, but by studying the humour of the moderns. The rules of English Comedy don't lie in the compass of Aristotle, or his followers, but in the pit, box, and galleries. And to examine into the humour of an English audience, let us see by what means our own English poets have succeeded in this point. To determine a suit at law we don't look into the archives of Greece or Rome, but inspect the reports of our own lawyers, and the acts and statutes of our parliaments, and by the same rule we have nothing to do with the models of Menander or Plautus, but must consult Shakespeare, Johnson, Fletcher, and others, who by methods much different from the ancients, have supported the English stage, and made themselves famous to posterity. We shall find that these gentlemen have fairly dispensed with the greatest part of critical formalities, the decorums of time and place, so much cried up of late, had no force of decorum with them, the economy of their plays was ad libitum, and the extent of their plots only limited by the convenience of action. I would willingly understand the regularities of Hamlet, Macbeth, Harry the Fourth, and of Fletcher's plays, and yet these have long been the darlings of the English audience, and are like to continue with the same applause, in defiance of all the criticisms that ever were published in Greek and Latin.
But are here no rules, no decorums to be observed in comedy? Must we make the condition of the English stage a state of anarchy? No, sir—For there are extremes in irregularity, as dangerous to an author, as too scrupulous a deference to criticism, and as I have given you an instance of one; so I shall present you an example of the other.
There are a sort of gentlemen that have had the jaunty education of dancing, French, and a fiddle, who coming to age before they arrive at years of discretion, make a shift to spend a handsome patrimony of two or three thousand pound, by soaking in the tavern all night, lolling a-bed all the morning, and sauntering away all the evening between the two play-houses with their hands in their pockets. You shall have a gentleman of this size upon his knowledge of Covent Garden, and a knack of witticising in his cups, set up immediately for a playwright. But besides the gentleman's wit and experience, here is another motive: there are a parcel of saucy impudent fellows about the playhouse, called doorkeepers, that can't let a gentleman see a play in peace, without jogging, and nudging him every minute sir, will you please to pay—Sir, the act's done, will you please to pay, sir. I have broke their heads all round two or three times, yet the puppies will be troublesome. Before gad, I'll be plagued with 'em no longer, I'll e'en write a play myself, by which means, my character of wit shall be established, I shall enjoy the freedom of the house, and to pin up the basket, pretty Miss — shall have the profits of my third night for her maidenhead. Thus we see, what a great blessing is a coming girl to a play-house. Here is a poet sprung from the tail of an actress, like Minerva from Jupiter's head. But my spark proceeds—my own intrigues are sufficient to found the plot, and the Devil's in't, if I can't make my character talk as wittily as those in The Trip to the Jubilee<49>—but stay—what shall I call it first? Let me see—The Rival Theatres<50>—very good, by gad, because I reckon the two houses will have a contest about this very play—thus having found a name for his play, in the next place he makes a play to his name, and thus he begins.
Act I. Scene: Covent Garden.
Enter Portico, Piaza and Turnstile.
Here you must note, that Portico being a compound of practical rake, and speculative gentleman, is ten to one, the author's own character, and the leading card in the pack. Piaza is his mistress, who lives in the square, and is daughter to old Pillariso, an odd out-o'the-way gentleman, something between the character of Alexander the Great, and Solon, which must please, because it is new.
Turnstile is maid and confident to Piaza, who for a bribe of ten pieces, lets Portico in at the back door; so the first act concludes.
In the second enter Spigotoso, who was butler perhaps to the Czar of Muscovy, and Fossetana his wife; after these characters are run dry, he brings you in at the third act, Whinewell, and Charmarillis for a scene of love to please the ladies; and so he goes on without fear or wit, till he comes to a marriage or two, and then he writes—Finis.
'Tis then whispered among his friends at Will's and Hippolito's, that Mr. Such a one has writ a very pretty comedy, and some of 'em to encourage the young author, equip him presently with prologue and epilogue, then the play is sent to Mr. Rich<27> or Mr. Betterton<51> in a fair legible hand, with the recommendation of some gentleman that passes for a man of parts, and a critic, in short, the gentleman's interest has the play acted, and the gentleman's interest makes a present to pretty Miss — she's made his whore, and the stage his cully, that for the loss of a month in rehearsing, and a hundred pound in dressing a confounded play, must give the liberty of the house to him and his friends for ever after.
Now such a play may be written with all the exactness imaginable in respect of unity in time and place, but if you inquire its character of any person, though of the meanest understanding of the whole audience, he will tell you 'tis intolerable stuff, and upon your demanding his reasons, his answer is, I don't like it. His humour is the only rule that he can judge a comedy by, but you find that mere nature is offended with some irregularities; and though he be not so learned in the drama, to give you an inventory of the faults, yet I can tell you, that one part of the plot had no dependence upon another, which made this simple man drop his attention and concern for the event, and so disengaging his thoughts from the business of the action, he sat there very uneasy, thought the time very tedious, because he had nothing to do. The characters were so uncoherent in themselves, and composed of such variety of absurdities, that in his knowledge of nature he could find no original for such a copy, and being therefore unacquainted with any folly they reproved, or any virtue that they recommended, their business was as flat and tiresome to him, as if the actors had talked Arabic.
Now these are the material irregularities of a play, and these are the faults, which downright mother-sense can censure and be offended at, as much as the most learned critic in the pit. And although the one cannot give me the reasons of his approbation or dislike, yet I will take his word for the credit or disrepute of a comedy, sooner perhaps than the opinion, of some virtuosos, for there are some gentlemen that have fortified their spleen so impregnably with criticism, and hold out so stiffly against all attacks of pleasantry, that the most powerful efforts of wit and humour cannot make the least impression. What a misfortune is it to these gentlemen to be natives of such an ignorant, self-willed, impertinent island, where let a critic and a scholar find never so many irregularities in a play, yet five hundred saucy people will give him the lie to his face, and come to see this wicked play forty or fifty times in a year. But this vox populi is the devil, though in a place of more authority than Aristotle, it is called vox dei.<52> here is a play with a vengeance, (says a critic) to bring the transaction of a year's time into the compass of three hours, to carry the whole audience with him from one kingdom to another, by the changing of a scene: where's the probability, nay, the possibility of all this, the Devil's in the poet sure, he don't think to put contradictions upon us.
Look'ee, sir, don't be in a passion, the poet does not impose contradictions upon you, because he has told you no lie, for that only is a lie which is related with some fallacious intention that you should believe it for a truth, now the poet expects no more that you should believe the plot of his play, than old Æsop designed the world should think his Eagle and Lion talked like you and I; which I think was every jot as improbable, as what you quarrel with, and yet the fables took, and I'll be hanged if you yourself don't like 'em. But besides, sir, if you are so inveterate against improbabilities, you must never come near the play-house at all, for there are several improbabilities, nay, impossibilities, that all the criticisms in nature cannot correct, as for instance, in the part of Alexander the Great, to be affected with the transactions of the play, we must suppose that we see that great conqueror, after all his triumphs, shunned by the woman he loves, and importuned by her he hates, crossed in his cups and jollity by his own subjects, and at last miserably ending his life in a raging madness, we must suppose that we see the very Alexander, the son of Philip, in all these unhappy circumstances, else we are not touched by the moral, which represents to us the uneasiness of humane life in the greatest state, and the instability of fortune in respect of worldly pomp. Yet the whole audience at the same time knows that this is Mr. Betterton, who is strutting upon the stage, and tearing his lungs for a livelihood. And that the same person should be Mr. Betterton, and Alexander the Great, at the same time, is somewhat like an impossibility, in my mind yet you must grant this impossibility in spite of your teeth, if you han't power to raise the old hero from the grave to act his own part.
Now for another impossibility, the less rigid critics allow to a comedy the space of an artificial day, or twenty-four hours, but those of the thorough reformation, will confine it to the natural or solar day, which is but half the time. Now admitting this for a decorum absolutely requisite: this play begins when it is exactly six by your watch, and ends precisely at nine, which is the usual time of the representation. Now is it feasible in rerum natura,<53> that the same space or extent of time can be three hours, by your watch, and twelve hours upon the stage, admitting the same number of minutes, or the same measure of sand to both. I'm afraid, sir, you must allow this for an impossibility too; and you may with as much reason allow the play the extent of a whole year, and if you grant me a year, you may give me seven, and so to a thousand. For that a thousand years should come within the compass of three hours is no more an impossibility, than that two minutes should be contained in one. Nullum minus continet in se maius,<54> is equally applicable to both.
So much for the decorum of time, now for the regularity of place. I might make the one a consequence of t'other, and allege, that by allowing me any extent of time, you must grant me any change of place; for the one depends upon t'other, and having five or six years for the action of a play, I may travel from Constantinople to Denmark, so to France, and home to England, and rest long enough in each country besides: but you'll say, how can you carry us with you? Very easily, sir, if you be willing to go. As for example. Here is a new play, the house is thronged, the prologue's spoken, and the curtain drawn represents you the scene of Grand Cairo. Whereabouts are you now, sir? Were not you the very minute before in the pit in the English play-house talking to a wench, and now Presto, you are spirited away to the banks of the River Nile. Surely, sir, this is a most intolerable improbability, yet this you must allow me, or else you destroy the very constitution of representation. Then in the second act, with a flourish of the fiddles, I change the scene to Astrakhan. O this is intolerable! Look'ee sir, 'tis not a jot more intolerable than the other, for you'll find that 'tis much about the same distance between Egypt and Astrakhan, as it is between Drury Lane and Grand Cairo; and if you please to let your fancy take post, it will perform the journey in the same moment of time, without any disturbance in the world to your person. You can follow Quintus Curtius all over Asia in the train of Alexander, and trudge after Hannibal like a cadet through all Italy, Spain, and Africa, in the space of four or five hours, yet the devil a one of you will stir a step over the threshold for the best poet in Christendom, though he make it his business to make heroes more amiable, and to surprise you with more wonderful accidents and events.
I am as little a friend to those rambling plays as anybody, nor have I ever espoused their party by my own practice, yet I could not forbear saying something in vindication of the great Shakespeare, whom every little fellow that can form an Aristus primus will presume to condemn for indecorums and absurdities; sparks that are so spruce upon their Greek and Latin, that, like our fops in travel, they can relish nothing but what is foreign, to let the world know, they have been abroad forsooth: but it must be so, because Aristotle said it, now I say it must be otherwise because Shakespeare said it, and I'm sure that Shakespeare was the greater poet of the two. But you'll say that Aristotle was the greater critic—that's a mistake, sir, for criticism in poetry, is no more than judgment in poetry; which you will find in your lexicon. Now if Shakespeare was the better poet, he must have the most judgment in his art; for everybody knows, that judgment is an essential part of poetry, and without it no writer is worth a farthing. But to stoop to the authority of either, without consulting the reason of the consequence, is an abuse to a man's understanding, and neither the precept of the philosopher, nor example of the poet, should go down with me, without examining the weight of their assertions. We can expect no more decorum or regularity in any business, than the nature of the thing will bear, now if the stage cannot subsist without the strength of supposition, and force of fancy in the audience, why should a poet fetter the business of his plot, and starve his action, for the nicety of an hour, or the change of a scene, since the thought of man can fly over a thousand years with the same ease, and in the same instant of time, that your eye glances from the figure of six, to seven, on the dial-plate, and can glide from the Cape of Good Hope to the Bay of St Nicholas, which is quite across the world, with the same quickness and activity, as between Covent Garden church, and Will's coffee-house. Then I must beg of these gentlemen to let our old English authors alone—if they have left vice unpunished, virtue unrewarded, folly unexposed, or prudence unsuccessful, the contrary of which is the utile of comedy, let them be lashed to some purpose. If any part of their plots have been independent of the rest, or any of their characters forced or unnatural, which destroys the Dulce of plays, let them be hissed off the stage. But if by a true decorum in these material points, they have writ successfully, and answered the end of dramatic poetry in every respect, let them rest in peace, and their memories enjoy the encomiums due to their merit, without any reflection for waiving those niceties, which are neither instructive to the world, nor diverting to mankind; but are like all the rest of critical learning, fit only to set people together by the ears in ridiculous controversies, that are not one jot material to the good of the public, whether they be true or false.
And thus you see, sir, I have concluded a very unnecessary piece of work, which is much too long, if you don't like it, but let it happen anyway, be assured, that I intended to please you, which should partly excuse,
Your most humble servant.