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their dramatic pieces; though with us it is a received opinion, that they cannot be supported without it.
It is worth our trouble to examine briefly in what manner this passion, which has always been deemed a weakness and a blemish in the greatest characters, got such footing upon our stage. Corneille, who was the first who brought the French tragedy to any perfection, and whom all the rest have followed, found the whole nation enamoured to madness of romances, and little disposed to admire any thing not resembling them. From the desire of pleasing his audience, who were at the same time his judges, he endeavoured to move them in the manner they had been accustomed to be affected; and, by introducing love in his scenes, to bring them the nearer to the predominant taste of the age for romance. From the same source arose that multiplicity of incidents, episodes, and adventures, with which our tragic pieces are crowded and obscured; so contrary to probability, which will not admit such a number of extraordinary and surprising events in the short space of four and twenty hours; so contrary to the simplicity of ancient tragedy; and so adapted to conceal, in the assemblage of so many different objects, the sterility of the genius of a poet, more intent upon the marvellous, than upon the probable and natural.
Both the Greeks and Romans have preferred the iambic to the heroic verse in their tragedies; not only as at the first it has a kind of dignity better adapted to the stage, but whilst it approaches nearer to prose, retains sufficiently the air of poetry to please the ear; and yet has too little of it to put the audience in mind of the poet, who ought not to appear at all in representations, where other persons are supposed to speak and act. Monsieur Dacier makes a very just reflection in this respect. He says, that it is the misfortune of our tragedy to have almost no other verse than what it has in common with epic poetry, elegy, pastoral, satyr, and comedy; whereas the learned languages have a great variety of versification.
This inconyenience is highly obvious in our tragcdy; which cannot avoid being removed by it from the natural and probable, as it obliges heroes, princes, kings, and queens, to express themselves in a pompous strain in their familiar conversation, which it would be ridiculous to attempt in real life. The giving utterance to the most impetuous passions in an uniform cadence, and by hemistics and rhymes, would undoubtedly be tedious and offensive to the ear, if the charms of poetry, the elegance of expression, and the spirit of the sentiments, and perhaps, more than all of them, the resistless force of custom, had not in a manner subjected our reason, and illuded our judgment.
It was not chance, therefore, which suggested to the Greeks the use of iambics in their tragedy. Nature itself seems to have dictated that kind of verse to them. Instructed by the same unerring guide, they made choice of a different versification for the chorus, more capable of affecting, and of being sung ; because it was necessary for the poetry to shine out in all its lustre, whilst the free conversation between the real actors was suspended. The chorus was an embellishment of the representation, and a relaxation of the audience, and therefore required more exalted poetry, and numbers to support it, when united with music and dancing
Of the Ancient, Middle, and New Comedy. Whilst tragedy arose in this manner at Athens, comedy, the second species of dramatic poetry, and which, till then, had been much neglected, began to be cultivated with more attention. Nature was the common parent of both. We are sensibly affected with the dangers, distresses, misfortunes, and, in a word, with whatever relates to the lives and conduct of illustrious persons ; and this gave birth to tragedy. And we are as curious to know the adventures, conduct, and defects of our oquals ; which supply us with occasions of laughing, and being merry at the expense of others. Hence comedy derives itself; which is properly an image of private life. Its design is to expose defects and vices upon the stage, and, by affixing ridicule to them, to make them contemptible; and, consequently, to instruct by diverting. Ridicule, therefore, or, to express the same word by another, Pleasantry, ought to prevail in comedy.
This poem took at different times three different forms at Athens, as well from the genius of the poets, as from the influence of the government; which occasioned various alterations in it.
The ancient comedy, so called by Horace, and which he dates after the time of Eschylus, retained something of its original rudeness, and the liberty it had been used to take of buffooning and reviling the
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spectators from the cart of Thespis. Though it was become regular in its plan, and worthy of a great theatre, it had not learned to be more reserved. It represented real transactions, with the names, habits, gestures, and likeness in masks, of whomsoever it thought fit to sacrifice to the public diversion. In a state where it was held good policy to unmask whatever carried the air of ambition, singularity, or knavery, comedy assumed the privilege to harangue, reform, and advise the people upon the most important occasions and interests. Nothing was spared in a city of so much liberty, or rather licence, as Athens was at that time. Generals, magistrates, government, the very gods, were abandoned to the poet's satirical vein; and all was well received, provided the comedy was diverting, and the attic salt not wanting.
8 In one of these comedies, not only the priest of Jupiter determines to quit his service, because more sacrifices are not offered to the god, but Mercury himself comes in a starving condition, to seek his fortune amongst mankind, and offers to serve as a porter, sutler, bailiff, guide, doorkeeper; in short, in any capacity, rather than return to heaven. In another, the same gods in extreme want and necessity, from the birds having built a city in the air, whereby their provisions are cut off, and the smoke of incense and sacrifices prevented from ascending to heaven, depute three ambassadors, in the name of Jupiter, to conclude a treaty of accommodation with the birds, upon such conditions as they shall approve. The chamber of audience, where the three famished gods are received, is a kitchen well stored with excellent game of all sorts. Here Hercules, deeply smitten with the smell of roast meat, which he apprehends to be more exquisite and nutritious than that of incense, begs leave to make his abode, and to turn the spit, and assist the cook upon occasion. The other pieces of Aristophanes abound with strokes still more satirical and severe upon the principal divinities.
5 The Birds
I am not much surprised at the poet's insulting the gods, and treating them with the utmost contempt, from whom he had nothing to fear: but I cannot help wondering at his having brought the most illustrious and powerful persons of Athens upon the stage, and that he presumed to attack the government itself, without any manner of respect or reserve.
Cleon having returned triumphant, contrary to the general expectation, from the expedition against Sphacteria, was looked upon by the people as the greatest captain of that age. Aristophanes, to set that bad man in a true light, who was the son of a currier, and a currier himself, and whose rise was owing solely to his temerity and imprudence, was so bold as to make him the subject of a comedy, 'iwithout being awed by his power and reputation ; but he was obliged to play the part of Cleon himself, and appeared for the first time upon the stage in that character ;. not one of the comedians daring to represent him, nor expose himself to the resentment of so formidable an enemy. His face was smeared over with winelees;
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