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ART. IX.-Ion : a tragedy, in five acts. By THOMAS NOON

TALFOURD. New York: 1837.



Tragedy, although its old form and features have departed, has not yet wholly succumbed to the spirit of the age. The stage, it is true, is fast losing its power, but readers are a thousandfold increased; and we question very much if the theatre alone ever gave a modern poet a real, lasting popularity. It is not wide enough. What a limited fame would his be whose work should only be known through the mouthing of a dozen actors, however clever. A metropolitan journal, and a metropolitan audience, would swear to its merits, and there an end. But now men write for millions. Each reader, as he passes over the performance, makes a little imaginary playhouse, and peoples it and gives it properties for himself. If he loses a few great points, he at least saves many small ones. The Agamemnon of the piece has not it all to himself. Monimia's maid, with her impudent stare, and the identical petticoat which we have seen so often in the farce, does not destroy the vraisemblance of a whole tragedy. Your battles are decently fought, on meadow or mountain, not by four boobies of a side, between the flat and the foot-lamps. The truth is, that the schoolmaster is destroying the theatre. When men knew less of the realities of the world, and of the every-day progress of affairs, their imaginations were satisfied with exhibitions in which geography and chronology were infinitely outraged; and, perhaps, the next neighbouring nation transplanted to Africa or the New Continent. Now, managers are forced to seek other sources of excitement. The rage for melo-drama is the legitimate and necessary result of extended knowledge. Omne ignotum pro mirabilemen wonder at what they do not understand. Turkish heroes, with crooked cimeters and loose trowsers, used to be adınired by children in the holidays; now, with big words and exaggerated sentiment in their mouths, they are gazed at by the vulgar of a larger growth. The theatre is given up to the lower classes, because the higher get better dramatic entertainment from books with less pain and expense. Actors degenerate because they have not the check of good taste in their audience. Writers for the stage become writers for the closet. Comedy is banished with the abolition of caste, and the progress of material science which brings mankind closer together, and a cheap literature, universally diffused, fills all the avenues of entertaining knowledge.

We never expect to see the theatre revived. Acting, once an art, has degenerated into a trade, to which few men will put themselves apprentice. It is a galling, miserable servitude to


the ninety-nine, and little better than a mock triumph to the hundredth. All the prestige of the stage is vanished. It used to be the daily theme of wits and newspapers, and the nightly resort of critics, fashionables, and literati. Men took sides on the production of a new comedy, and the realm rung with the contest. The actors lived from year to year in the public eye and mind; had their partisans and dependents, and lorded it, if they arrived at any eminence, in a sphere often extended and seldom contemptible. The theatre, up to a recent period, occupied a place in England, in the public interest, scarcely second to the house of commons. The generation now foremost in our own community, remember it here in a most respectable and flourishing condition; and we ourselves have reminiscences of comedies cast from the standing company of Philadelphia in a manner that would astonish now. But it is the fate of every thing human, after completing its cycle, to come back to its point of departure. Tragedy was itinerant with Thespis, in early Greece; and the drama now owes the little vitality which it retains to traveling actors—men and women, who flit hither and thither, finding the stage every where barren, for the especially

sound reason that they, and such as they, have made it so. For as there are few players whose parts are so mean that on some scene or other they will not appear transcendent, so there are few that would not prefer the part of Hotspur in a village before that of Scrub in the metropolis. Hence the whole corps dramatique is peripatetic-each individual moving in a concentric orb, in which he finds attendant satellites. Occasionally, the Romeo or the Hamlet

. comes back from spangles and bugles, in a barn on the frontier, to his more appropriate part of Apothecary or Guildenstern at home, but it is only when he is pinched by want, or a fugitive from the constable. There is no keeping him to his business. He learns a few new attitudes, mouths with a more pompous or more pedantic diction, from imitating some freshly imported novelty, and straight is off again, to sell his new wares to distant chapmen. “A forest of feathers, and two Provencial roses on his razed shoes, will at any time get him a fellowship in a cry of

a players.” Thus is the whole discipline and order of the stage subverted. Actors are untaught in the commonest elements of their art. They are without elocution, without ease, without force or propriety. Having passed through no pupilage, they have acquired no instruction. The standard of excellence thus becomes imperceptibly lowered. The actor looks for an audience (and easily finds it) which will be content with him as he is; the audience, by degrees viewing him as a model, is induced, by time and circumstance, to take some one a little worse; if, by chance, he should be a little better, their wonder

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and applause are unbounded, and a promising actor probably spoiled. Content with the "star” which chances to be in the ascendant, little attention is paid to the subordinate persons of the drama, disapprobation is never expressed, and consequently never feared. The principal personage, if he play well, is surrounded by a host of ineffective and insignificant, sometimes intoxicated, underlings, who mar his performance; and if he play ill, who make bad worse, until at length those audiences who alone can preserve the taste of theatrical entertainment, and check the tendencies to vice, which the theatre is apt to afford, are driven in disgust from attendance upon it, or go to it rarely, and it becomes the resort of the dissolute, the vicious, and the vulgar.

The effect of this inefficiency of the stage on dramatic authorship may casily be traced. Modern dramas, instead of presenting a variety of characters, each operating to advance the interest of the play, to relieve its heavier scenes, or to promote its catastrophe, are written up to a single part, round which every thing else revolves in a monotonous and insipid circle. They represent an individual trait rather than an action; and as to the development of a great thenie, which the ancients, with wonderful ability and effect, contrived to accomplish within much narrower limits than the modern stage affords, it is not attempted, or if it be, it is done with no reference to the theatre. Men of genius write dramatic poems," by some deemed a spurious species of composition, but in our judgment the necessary result of having no stage to write for. The consequence is, that sentiments are elaborated, where in former times incident was demanded, and authors come to paint their characters instead of presenting them in ripe and living reality. Much of the descriptive and didactic must mingle with the dramatic, when there is no controlling conviction of the necessity of a constant advancement of the action, and it is scarcely necessary to say that the descriptive and didactic have little to do with the genius of the English theatre. All attempts to perform Lord Byron's plays to the satisfaction of an audience, we believe, have failed. In four or five plain words, “they are not adapted to the stage,” which ineans neither more nor less than that they want several material elements which successful plays always possess. There is poetry enough in them, but they lack the resemblance to life-the humanity, if we may so speak, which a picture of life ought to possess. The best and most successful plays in our language, are those which have their origin in some popular narrative, or well-known legend, and which adhere closely to their originals. Such are only one remove from the first impression of life, and men recognize the picture. Perhaps one of the best tragedies which has established itself on the stage for twenty years past, is Milman's Fazio; the incidents of which, in the original tale (the fifth novel of Grazzini), are homely enough, but wonderfully simple and true. The beautiful poetry in which the tragic author has enwrapped them, does not conceal one feature or outline, but rather serves to enhance the merit of what it covers, like the maiden's veil in Ariosto :

" Which all the beauties of her form discloses,

As the clear crystal doth the imprison'd roses." And yet the success of this very play may in part be owing to the paucity of its dramatis persone, which brings it within the compass of the leading business of any theatre, having the least claims to respectability. Fazio and Bianca, cleverly played, will carry it off pretty well; although we have heard, from a very distinguished person, whose representation of the latter character was certainly a most exquisite and touching specimen of art, guided by genius, that the “Lady Aldobella” would in competent hands be the triumph of the piece. This, however, we always, with deference to the authority, deemed a paradox; though the opinion naturally enough arose from the consciousness of power to give that character a force and consequence, of which the inefficient persons to whom it is commonly committed have no conception.

Knowles has furnished two plays for the stage which, with all their faults, indicate considerable dramatic power and some command of resources. Master Walter, in the Hunchback, is, we believe, an invention the more meritorious for offering something to the spectator on which the imagination can fix without too strong an effort. There is something material and tangible in him, in which particular Mr. Knowles has much more successfully copied the old dramatists than in his quaint prithees and obsolete inversions. The hood does not make the monk, nor will adverbs and prepositions, however skilfully arranged, bring back the days of Queen Bess. But Mr. Knowles has another merit, and that is, judgment in the selection of situation. His characters occasionally bear admirably upon each other. In former days men were lavish of these points, but now one or two make the fortune of a play, and justly so when a few chilling verses and a violent catastrophe are held sufficient stock for a writer to come before the public with. We consider St. Pierre, in “ The Wife," as a very successful effort of art on the part of the same author; and the last interview of that character with his employer, in which he extorts the confession, as very cleverly conceived. Not that it is not liable to remark on the score of probability—the thing never could have happened--but that is a minor objection, which a caviller might

make to a thousand of the most effective scenes in the language. Hamlet and Laertes never could have throttled each other in a young lady's grave before a whole court, the ministers of religion and the attendant guards, in any country sufficiently civilized to bestow the rites of sepulture at all, -and so of the rest. On this score we are much of the opinion of Voltaire, who told a débutante receiving instructions from him in relation to a character in one of his tragedies, and who objected that if she played it according to his wishes the audience would say that she had the devil in her. “That is precisely what I want, madam," replied the author, "an actress ought to have the devil in her.” We entertain the same views in relation to writers for the stage. It will not do for them to weigh every minute circumstance of objection before they commit a scene to the prompter's hands. The whole thing is an illusion, and so intended to be. The shadows on the canvass must be larger than life, or the distance to which they are thrown will make them seem smaller. Spectators do not analyse if they can be brought to admire, and the time is past when the critics could outvote the galleries.

But we have been led a little aside from our position relative to the effect of the degeneracy of the stage, upon dramatic authorship and the tendency of dramatic talent to such a new form of address to the imagination. A remarkable instance of this is the very recent one of Mr. Taylor in his “Philip van Artevelde.” That performance, if we are not mistaken, partakes more largely of the spirit of epic than of dramatic poetry, and the shape into which it is thrown by the author indicates that he was sensible not only that the age of the epopee is gone, but also that the reign of the drama in its older forms is passing away. Such a subject in the days of Elizabeth would have been compressed into a play, if it came at all under the notice of a man of genius. At an earlier, and perhaps at a later period, it would have been expanded into a heroic poem. In 1835 its author could meet the exigencies of literature no better than by making it a dramatic poem instead of a drama. There is excellent poetry, there are fine situations, and excellent scenes in it; yet the writer has not been induced by all the attractions that a stage-triumph was once thought to carry with it, to risk his venture in the hands of a theatrical company, or to leave it in a shape that by possibility might tempt a manager to try conclusions with it. An author who, in the last century, had evinced capacity for dealing with the difficulties and appropriating the advantages of dramatic situation to an equal extent with Mr. Taylor, and had neglected to carry them to Drury Lane or Covent Garden, would have passed for a prodigy. Such a poet as he, could not have kept away from the boards.


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