« PreviousContinue »
cumstances; these may be varied at will, because they scarce make any impression.
But though I have taken arms to rescue modern poets from the despotism of modern critics, I would not be understood to justify liberty without any reserve. An unbounded licence with relation to place and time is faulty for a reason that seems to have been overlooked, which is, that it seldom fails to break the unity of action. In the ordinary course of human affairs, single events, such as are fit to be represented on the stage, are confined to a narrow spot, and commonly employ no great extent of time; we accordingly seldom find strict unity of action in a dramatic composition, where any remarkable latitude is indulged in these particulars. I say further, that a composition which employs but one place, and requires not a greater length of time than is necessary for the representation, is so much the more perfect; because the confining an event within so narrow bounds, contributes to the unity of action; and also prevents that labour, however slight, which the mind must undergo in imagining frequent changes of place, and many intervals of time. But still I must insist, that such limitation of place and time as was necessary in the Grecian drama is no rule to us; and, therefore, that though such limitation adds one beauty more to the composition, it is, at best, but a refinement which may justly give place to a thousand beauties more substantial. And I may add, that it is extremely difficult, I was about to say, impracticable, to contract within the Grecian limits, any fable so fruitful of incidence in number and variety, as to give full scope to the fluctuation of passion.
It may now appear, that critics who put the unities of place and of time upon the same footing with the unity of action, making them all equally essential, have not attended to the nature and constitution of the modern drama. If they admit an interrupted representation, with which no writer finds fault, it is absurd to reject its greatest advantage, that of representing many interesting subjects excluded from the Grecian stage. If there needs must be a reformation, why not restore the ancient chorus, and the ancient continuity of action? There is certainly no medium; for to admit an interruption without relaxing from the strict unities of place and of time, is in effect to load us with all the inconveniences of the ancient drama, and, at the same time, to withhold from us its advantages.
The only proper question, therefore, is, Whether our model be, or be not, a real improvement? This indeed may fairly be called in question; and in order to a comparative trial, some particulars must be premised. When a play begins, we have no difficulty to adjust our imagination to the scene of action, however distant it be in the time or in place; because we know that the play is a representation only. The case is very different after we are engaged; it is the perfection of representation to hide itself, to impose on the spectator, and to produce in him an impression of reality, as if he were a spectator of a real event; but any interruption annihilates that impression, by rousing him out of his waking dream, and unChap. 2. part 1. sect. 7.
happily restoring him to his senses. So difficult it is to support the impression of reality, that much slighter interruptions than the interval between two acts are sufficient to dissolve the charm: in the fith act of the Mourning Bride, the three first scenes are in a room of state; the fourth in a prison; and the change is operated by shifting the scene, which is done in a trice; but however quick the transition may be, it is impracticable to impose upon the spectators, so as to make them conceive that they are actually carried from the palace to the prison; they immediately reflect, that the palace and prison are imaginary, and that the whole is a fiction.
From these premises, one will naturally be led, at first view, to pronounce the frequent interruptions in the modern drama to be an imperfection. It will occur, "That every interruption must have the effect to banish the dream of reality, and with it to banish our concern, which cannot subsist while we are conscious that all is a fiction; and therefore, that in the modern drama sufficient time is not afforded for fluctuation and swelling of passion, like what is afforded in that of Greece, where there is no interruption." This reasoning, it must be owned, has a specious appearance; but we must not become faint-hearted upon the first repulse: let us rally our troops for a second engagement.
Considering attentively the ancient drama, we find, that though the representation is never interrupted, the principal action is suspended not less frequently than in the modern drama; there are five acts in each; and the only difference is, that in the former, when the action is suspended, as it is at the end of every act, opportunity is taken of the interval to employ the chorus in singing. Hence it appears, that the Grecian continuity of representation cannot have the effect to prolong the impression of reality: to.banish that impression, a pause in the action while the chorus is employed in singing, is no less effectual than a total suspension of the representation.
But to open a larger view, I am ready to shew, that a representation with proper pauses is better qualified for making a deep impression, than a continued represention without a pause. This will be evident from the following considerations: Representation cannot very long support an impression of reality; for when the spirits are exhausted by close attention and by the agitation of passion, an uneasiness ensues, which never fails to banish the waking dream. Now, supposing the time that a man can employ with strict attention without wandering, to be no greater than is requisite for a single act, a supposition that cannot be far from truth; it follows, that a continued representation of longer endurance than an act, instead of giving scope to fluctuation and swelling of passion, would overstrain the attention, and produce a total absence of mind. In that respect the four pauses have a fine effect; for by affording to the audience a seasonable respite when the impression of reality is gone, and while nothing material is in agitation, they relieve the mind from its fatigue; and consequently prevent a wan. dering of thought at the very time possibly of the most interesting
In one article, indeed, the Grecian model has greatly the advantage its chorus during an interval not only preserves alive the impressions made upon the audience, but also prepares their hearts finely for new impressions. In our theatres, on the contrary, the audience, at the end of every act, being left to trifle time away, lose every warm impression; and they begin the next act cool and unconcerned, as at the commencement of the representation. This is a gross malady in our theatrical representations; but a malady that luckily is not incurable. To revive the Grecian chorus would be to revive the Grecian slavery of place and time; but I can figure a detached chorus coinciding with a pause in the representation, as the ancient chorus did with a pause in the prineipal action. What objection, for example, can there lie against music between the acts, vocal and instrumental, adapted to the subject? such detached chorus, without putting us under limitation of time or place, would recruit the spirits, and would preserve entire the tone, if not the tide of passion: the music, after an act, should commence in the tone of the preceding passion, and be gradually varied till it accord with the tone of the passion that is to succeed in the next act. The music and the representation would both of them be gainers by their conjunction; which will thus appear. Music that accords with the present tone of mind, is, on that account, doubly agreeable; and accordingly, though music singly hath not power to raise a passion, it tends greatly to support a passion already raised. Further, music prepares us for the passion that follows, by making cheerful, tender, melancholy, or ani. mated impressions, as the subject requires. Take for an example the first scene of the Mourning Bride, where soft music, in a melancholy strain, prepares us for Almeria's deep distress. In this manner, music and representation support each other delightfully: the impression made upon the audience by the representation is a fine preparation for the music that succeeds; and the impression made by the music, is a fine preparation for the representation that succeeds. It appears to me evident, that, by some such contrivance, the modern drama may be improved, so as to enjoy the advantage of the ancient chorus without its slavish limitation of place and time. And as to music in particular, I cannot figure any means that would tend more to its improvement: composers, those for the stage at least, would be reduced to the happy necessity of studying and imitating nature; instead of deviating, according to the present mode, into wild, fantastic, and unnatural conceits. But we must return to our subject, and finish the comparison between the ancient and the modern drama.
The numberless improprieties forced upon the Greek dramatic poets by the constitution of their drama, may be sufficient, one should think, to make us prefer the modern drama, even abstracting for the improvement proposed. To prepare the reader for this article, it must be premised, that as in the ancient drama the place of action never varies, a place necessarily must be chosen, to which every person may have access without any improbability. This confines the scene to some open place, generally the court or area
before a palace; which excludes from the Grecian theatre transac tions within doors, though these commonly are the most important. Such cruel restraint is of itself sufficient to cramp the most preg. nant invention; and accordingly, Greek writers, in order to preserve unity of place, are reduced to woful improprieties. In the Hippolytus of Euripides,* Phaedra, distressed in mind and body, is carried without any pretext from her palace to the place of action: is there laid upon a couch, unable to support herself upon her limbs, and made to utter many things improper to be heard by a number of women who form the chorus; and what is still more improper, her female attendant uses the strongest intreaties to make her reveal the secret cause of her anguish; which at last Phaedra, contrary to decency and probability, is prevailed upon to do in presence of that very chorus. Alcestes, in Euripides, at the point of death, is brought from the palace to the place of action, groaning, and lamenting her untimely fate. In the Trachiniens of Sophocles,§ a secret is imparted to Dejanira, the wife of Hercules, in presence of the chorus. In the tragedy of Iphigenia, the messenger employed to inform Clytemnestra that Iphigenia was sacrificed, stops short at the place of action, and with a loud voice calls the Queen from her palace to hear the news. Again, in the Iphigenia in Tauris, the necessary presence of the chorus forces Euripides into a gross absurdity, which is to form a secret in their hearing; and, to disguise the absurdity, much court is paid to the chorus, not one woman, but a number, to engage them to secrecy. In the Medea of Euripides, that princess makes no difficulty, in presence of the chorus, to plot the death of her husband, of his mistress, and of her father the king of Corinth, all by poison. It was necessary to bring Medea upon the stage, and there is but one place of action, which is always occupied by the chorus. This scene closes the second act; and, in the end of the third, she frankly makes the chorus her confidants in plotting the murder of her own children. Terence, by identity of place, is often forced to make a conversation within doors to be heard in the open street: the cries of a woman in labour are there heard distinctly.
The Greek poets are not less hampered by unity of time than by that of place. In the Hippolytus of Euripides, that prince is ba nished at the end of the fourth act; and in the first scene of the following act, a messenger relates to Theseus the whole particulars of the death of Hippolytus by the sea-monster; that remarkable event must have occupied many hours; and yet in the representation, it is confined to the time employed by the chorus upon the song at the end of the fourth act. The inconsistency is still greater in the Iphigenia in Tauris: the song could not exhaust half an hour; and yet the incidents supposed to have happened during that time, could not naturally have been transacted in less than half a day.
The Greek artists are forced, no less frequently, to transgress another rule, derived also from a continued representation.
* Act 1. sc. 6.
+ Act 2. sc. 2.
|| Act 4. at the close.
+ Act 2. sc. 1.
rule is, that as a vacuity, however momentary, interrupts the representation, it is necessary that the place of action be constantly occupied. Sophocles, with regard to that rule as well as to others, is generally correct. But Euripides cannot bear such restraint; he often evacuates the stage, and leaves it empty for others. Iphigenia in Tauris, after pronouncing a soliloquy in the first scene, leaves the place of action, and is succeeded by Orestes and Pylades; they, after some conversation, walk off; and Iphigenia re-enters, accompanied with the chorus. In the Alcestes, which is of the same author, the place of action is void at the end of the third act. It is true that, to cover the irregularity, and to preserve the representation in motion, Euripides is careful to fill the stage without loss of time; but this still is an interruption, and a link of the chain broken; for during the change of the actors, there must be a space of time, during which the stage is occupied by neither set. It makes indeed a more remarkable interruption, to change the place of action as well as the actors; but that was not practicable upon the Grecian stage.
It is hard to say upon what model Terence has formed his plays. Having no chorus, there is a pause in the representation at the end of every act. But advantage is not taken of the cessation, even to vary the place of action: for the street is always chosen, where every thing passing may be seen by every person; and by that choice, the most sprightly and interesting parts of the action, which commonly pass within doors, are excluded; witness the last act of the Eunuch. He hath submitted to the like slavery with respect to time. In a word, a play with a regular chorus is not more confined in place and time than his plays are. Thus a zealous sectary follows implicitly ancient forms and ceremonies, without once considering whether their introductive cause be still subsisting. Plautus, of a bolder genius than Terence, makes good use of the liberty afforded by an interrupted representation; he varies the place of action upon all occasions, when the variation suits his purpose.
The intelligent reader will by this time understand, that I plead for no change of place in our plays but after an intreval, nor for any latitude in point of time but what falls in with an interval. The unities of place and time ought to be strictly observed during each act; for during the representation, there is no opportunity for the smallest deviation from either. Hence it is an essential requisite, that during an act the stage be always occupied; for even a momentary vacuity makes an interval or interruption. Another rule is no less essential: it would be a gross breach of the unity of action, to exhibit upon the stage two separate actions at the same time; and therefore, to preserve that unity, it is necessary that each personage, introduced during an act, be linked to those in possession of the stage, so as to join all in one action. These things follow from the very conception of an act, which admits not the slightest interruption: the moment the representation is intermitted, there is an end of that act; and we have no notion of a new act, but where, after a pause or interval, the representation is again