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V.-HOME'S TRAGEDY OF DOUGLAS.*
[From the Monthly Review, 1757. “ Douglas, a Tragedy; as
it is acted at the Theatre Royal in Covent-Garden, 8vo.] When the town, by a tedious succession of indifferent performances, has been long confined to censure, it will naturally wish for an opportunity of praise; and, like a losing gamester, vainly expect every last throw must retrieve the former. In this disposition, a performance with but the slightest share of merit is welcomed with no small share of applause: its prettinesses exalt us into rapture; and the production is compared, not with our idea of excellence, but of the exploded trash it succeeds. Add to this, that the least qualified to judge are ever foremost to obtrude their opinions: ignorance exclaims with excess of admiration; party roars in its support; and thus the trifle of the day is sure to have the loudest voices and the most votes in its favor; nor does it cease to be the finest piece in nature,” till a newer, and consequently a finer, appears, to consign it to oblivion.
Do these men of applause, who can so easily be brought
“ To wonder with a foolish face of praise."
deserve our envy or our censure? If their raptures are real,
* [John Home was born at Leith in 1722, and died at Edinburgh in 1808, in his eighty-sixth year. Besides this tragedy, he wrote “ Agis," the “Siege of Aquileia," the “Fatal Discovery,” Alonzo," and “ Alfred ;" and also a “ History of the Rebellion of 1745.” Having passed some time as a volunteer in a royal corps raised to repel the attack of the Chevalier, he was, in 1746, presented to the church and parish of Athelstanesford, in East Lothian, vacant by the death of Robert Blair, author of “ The Grave." In 1756, he came up to London, and offered this tragedy to Garrick, but the English Roscius pronounced it totally unfit for the stage. The friends of the author being of a different opinion, the play was produced at Edinburgh, in December 1756, and met with a brilliant reception. In the following February, it was brought out at Covent Garden Theatre ; Garrick still persisting in not performing it at Drury-Lane.)
none but the ill-natured would wish to damp them; if fictitious, stupidity only can sympathize with their pretended felicity.
As in company, the loudest laugh comes generally from the person least capable of relishing the conversation, so in criticism, those are often most casily pleased whose sensations are least exquisite in the perception of beauty. The glutton may like the feast, but the delicacy of the epicure alone can distinguish and enjoy the choice, the disposition, the flavors, that give elegance of spirit to the entertainment.
To direct our taste, and conduct the poet up to perfection, has ever been the true critic's province; and though it were to be wished that all who aim at excellence would endeavor to observe the rules he prescribes, yet a failure in this respect alone should never induce us to reject the performance.
A mechanically exact adherence to all the rules of the drama is more the business of industry than of genius. Theatrical lawgivers rather teach the ignorant where to censure, than the poet how to write. If sublimity, sentiment, and passion, give warmth and life and expression to the whole, we can the more easily dispense with the rules of the Stagyrite; but if languor, affectation, and the false sublime, are substituted for these, an observance of all the precepts of the ancients will prove but a poor compensation.
We would not willingly have applied this last observation to the performance now before us; but when a work is obtruded upon us as the consummate picture of perfection, and the standard of taste,
“Ne quodcunque volet, poscat sibi fabula credi !"
Let candor allow this writer mediocrity now; his future productions may probably entitle him to higher applause.*
* [On the first appearance of Douglas, David Hume gave it as his opinion,
With respect to his present tragedy, we could, indeed, enter on a particular examen of the beauties or faults discoverable in the diction, sentiment, plot, or characters ;* but, in works of this nature, general observation often characterizes more strongly than a particular criticism could do; for it were an easy task to point out those passages in any indifferent author, where he has excelled himself, and yet these comparative beauties, if we may be allowed the expression, may have no real merit at all. Poems, like buildings, have their point of view, and too near a situation gives but a partial conception of the whole. Suffice it, then, if we only add, that this tragedy's want of moral, which should be the groundwork of every fable; the unfolding a material part of the plot in soliloquy; the preposterous distress of a married lady for a former husband, who had been dead near twenty years ;* the want of
that it was one of the most interesting and pathetic pieces ever exhibited on
Should I give it the preference,” says he,“ to the Merope of Maffei, and to that of Voltaire ; should I affirm that it contained more fire and spirit than the former, more tenderness and simplicity than the latter, I might be accused of partiality.” Not content with this, he proceeded to declare, that the author possessed the true theatric genius of Shakspeare and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one and the licentiousness of the other.-See Hume’s Dedication to his Four Dissertations, and Biog. Dram. vol i. p. 174.
In a letter to a friend, dated August 10, 1757, Mr. Gray says, “I am greatly struck with the tragedy of Douglas, though it has infinite faults: the author seems to me to have retrieved the true language of the stage, which had been lost for these hundred years; and there is one scene (between Matilda and the old peasant) so masterly, that it strikes me blind to all the defects in the work.”-Mason's Gray, vol. i. p. 357.)
* [" The structure of the story somewhat resembles that of Voltaire's Mérope, but is as simple and natural as that of the French author is complicated and artificial. Mérope came out about 1743, and Mr. Home may therefore easily have seen it; but he has certainly derived his more simple and natural tale from the old ballad of Gil Morrice. In memory of this, the tune of Gil Morrice, a simple and beautiful air, is, in Scotland at least, always played while the curtain rises.”—Sir WALTER Scott, Prose Works, vol. xix. p. 345, edit. 1835.]
* [There is something overstrained in the twenty years spent by Lady
incidents to raise that fluctuation of hope and fear which interest us in the catastrophe; are all faults we could easily pardon, did poetic fire, elegance, or the heightenings of pathetic distress, afford adequate compensation : but these are dealt to us with a sparing hand.
However, as we have perceived some dawnings of genius in this writer, let us not dwell on his imperfections, but rather proceed to show on what particular passage in his performance we have founded our hopes of his brightening, one day, into stronger lustre.
Those parts of nature, and that rural simplicity with which the author was, perhaps, best acquainted, are not unhappily described ; and hence we are led to conjecture, that a more universal knowledge of nature will probably increase his powers of description. The native innocence of the shepherd Norval is happily expressed; it requires some art to dress the thoughts and phrases of the common people, without letting them swell into bombast, or sink into vulgarity; a fault generally charged upon the English authors, who are remarked by their neighbors of the continent to write too much above, or too much below, every subject they undertake to treat upon.
Glenalvon's character is strongly marked, and bears a near resemblance to Sbakspeare's Richard.' It is thus delineated in the first act:
Randolph in deep and suppressed sorrow ; nor is it natural, though useful, certainly, to the poet, that her regrets should turn less on the husband of her youth, than upon the new-born child whom she had scarcely seen.”—Sir WALTER SCOTT, Prose Works, vol. xix. p. 342.]
An artificial image of himself ;
The following passage is an oblique panegyric on the Union, and contains a pleasing gradation of sentiment. The lines marked in italics demand particular distinction.
[“ There is something awkward in Lady Randolph's sudden confidence to Anna, as is pointed out by David Hume. “The spectator,' says the critic, ‘is apt to suspect it was done in order to instruct him ; a very good end, but which might have been obtained by a careful and artificial conduct of the dialogue.' This is all unquestionably true ; but the spectator should, and indeed must, make considerable allowances, if he expects to receive pleasure from the drama. He must get his mind, according to Tony Lumpkin's phrase, into “a concatenation accordingly, since he cannot reasonably expect that scenes of deep and complicated interest shall be placed before him in close succession, without some force being put upon ordinary probability ; and the question is not, how far you have sacrificed your judgment in order to accommodate the fiction, but rather what is the degree of pleasure you have received in return. Perhaps, in this point of view, it is scarcely possible for a spectator to make such sacrifices for greater pleasure than we have enjoyed in seeing Lady Randolph personified by the inimitable Siddons. Great as that pleasure was on all occasions, it was increased in a manner which can hardly be conceived, when her son (the late Mr. Henry Siddons) supported his mother, in the character of Douglas, and when the full everflowings of maternal tenderness are authorized, nay, authenticated and realized, by the actual existence of the relationship.”—Sir WALTER Scott.
“ Mrs. Siddons told me, that she never found any study (which, in the technical language of the stage, means the getting verses by heart) so easy as that of Douglas, which is one of the best criterions of excellence in the dramatic style.”—HENRY MACKENZIE, Life of Home, vol. i. p. 43.)