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CHAPTER XXIII: The Three Unities - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 2 
Elements of Criticism, Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Elements of Criticism, 2 vols.
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The Three Unities
In the first chapter is explained the pleasure we have in a chain of connected facts. In histories of the world, of a country, of a people, this pleasure is faint; because the connections are slight or obscure. We find more entertainment in biography; because the incidents are connected by their relation to a person who makes a figure, and commands our attention. But the greatest entertainment is in the history of a single event, supposing it interesting; and the reason is, that the facts and circumstances are connected by the strongest of all relations, that of cause and effect: a number of facts that give birth to each other form a delightful train; and we have great mental enjoyment in our progress from the beginning to the end.
But this subject merits a more particular discussion. When we consider the chain of causes and effects in the material world, independent of purpose, design, or thought, we find a number of incidents in succession, without beginning, middle, or end: every thing that happens is both a cause and an effect; being the effect of what goes be-<405>fore, and the cause of what follows: one incident may affect us more, another less; but all of them are links in the universal chain: the mind, in viewing these incidents, cannot rest or settle ultimately upon any one; but is carried along in the train without any close.
But when the intellectual world is taken under view, in conjunction with the material, the scene is varied. Man acts with deliberation, will, and choice: he aims at some end, glory, for example, or riches, or conquest, the procuring happiness to individuals, or to his country in general: he proposes means, and lays plans to attain the end purposed. Here are a number of facts or incidents leading to the end in view, the whole composing one chain by the relation of cause and effect. In running over a series of such facts or incidents, we cannot rest upon any one; because they are presented to us as means only, leading to some end: but we rest with satisfaction upon the end or ultimate event; because there the purpose or aim of the chief person or persons is accomplished. This indicates the beginning, the middle, and the end, of what Aristotle calls an entire action.* The story naturally begins with describing those circumstances which move the principal person to form a plan, in order to compass some desired event: the prosecution of that plan and the<406> obstructions, carry the reader into the heat of action: the middle is properly where the action is the most involved; and the end is where the event is brought about, and the plan accomplished.
A plan thus happily accomplished after many obstructions, affords wonderful delight to the reader; to produce which, a principle mentioned above† mainly contributes, the same that disposes the mind to complete every work commenced, and in general to carry every thing to a conclusion.
I have given the foregoing example of a plan crowned with success, because it affords the clearest conception of a beginning, a middle, and an end, in which consists unity of action; and indeed stricter unity cannot be imagined than in that case. But an action may have unity, or a beginning, middle, and end, without so intimate a relation of parts; as where the catastrophe is different from what is intended or desired, which frequently happens in our best tragedies. In the Aeneid, the hero, after many obstructions, makes his plan effectual. The Iliad is formed upon a different model: it begins with the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon; goes on to describe the several effects produced by that cause; and ends in a reconciliation. Here is unity of ac-<407>tion, no doubt, a beginning, a middle, and an end; but inferior to that of the Aeneid, which will thus appear. The mind hath a propensity to go forward in the chain of history: it keeps always in view the expected event; and when the incidents or under-parts are connected by their relation to the event, the mind runs sweetly and easily along them. This pleasure we have in the Aeneid. It is not altogether so pleasant, as in the Iliad, to connect effects by their common cause; for such connection forces the mind to a continual retrospect: looking back is like walking backward.
Homer’s plan is still more defective, upon another account, That the events described are but imperfectly connected with the wrath of Achilles, their cause: his wrath did not exert itself in action; and the misfortunes of his countrymen were but negatively the effects of his wrath, by depriving them of his assistance.
If unity of action be a capital beauty in a fable imitative of human affairs, a plurality of unconnected fables must be a capital deformity. For the sake of variety, we indulge an under-plot that is connected with the principal: but two unconnected events are extremely unpleasant, even where the same actors are engaged in both. Ariosto is quite licentious in that particular: he carries on at the same time a plurality of unconnected stories. His only excuse is, that his plan is perfectly well<408> adjusted to his subject; for every thing in the Orlando Furioso is wild and extravagant.
Tho’ to state facts in the order of time is natural, yet that order may be varied for the sake of conspicuous beauties.* If, for example, a noted story, cold and simple in its first movements, be made the subject of an epic poem, the reader may be hurried into the heat of action; reserving the preliminaries for a conversation-piece, if thought necessary; and that method, at the same time, hath a peculiar beauty from being dramatic.† But a privilege that deviates from nature ought to be sparingly indulged; and yet romance-writers make no difficulty of presenting to the reader, without the least preparation, unknown persons engaged in some arduous adventure equally unknown. In Cassandra,1 two personages, who afterward are discovered to be the heroes of the fable, start up completely armed upon the banks of the Euphrates, and engage in a single combat.‡
A play analysed, is a chain of connected facts,<409> of which each scene makes a link. Each scene, accordingly, ought to produce some incident relative to the catastrophe or ultimate event, by advancing or retarding it. A scene that produceth no incident, and for that reason may be termed barren, ought not to be indulged, because it breaks the unity of action: a barren scene can never be intitled to a place, because the chain is complete without it. In the Old Bachelor, the 3d scene of act 2. and all that follow to the end of that act, are mere conversation-pieces, productive of no consequence. The 10th and 11th scenes, act 3. Double Dealer, the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th scenes, act 1. Love for Love, are of the same kind. Neither is The Way of the World entirely guiltless of such scenes. It will be no justification, that they help to display characters: it were better, like Dryden in his dramatis personae, to describe characters beforehand, which would not break the chain of action. But a writer of genius has no occasion for such artifice: he can display the characters of his personages much more to the life in sentiment and action. How successfully is this done by Shakespear! in whose works there is not to be found a single barren scene.
Upon the whole, it appears, that all the facts in an historical fable, ought to have a mutual connection, by their common relation to the grand event or catastrophe. And this relation, in which the unity of action consists, is equally essential to epic and dramatic compositions.<410>
In handling unity of action, it ought not to escape observation, that the mind is satisfied with slighter unity in a picture than in a poem; because the perceptions of the former are more lively than the ideas of the latter. In Hogarth’s Enraged Musician,2 we have a collection of every grating sound in nature, without any mutual connection except that of place. But the horror they give to the delicate ear of an Italian fidler, who is represented almost in convulsions, bestows unity upon the piece, with which the mind is satisfied.
How far the unities of time and of place are essential, is a question of greater intricacy. These unities were strictly observed in the Greek and Roman theatres; and they are inculcated by the French and English critics, as essential to every dramatic composition. They are also acknowledged by our best poets, though in practice they make frequent deviation, which they pretend not to justify, against the practice of the Greeks and Romans, and against the solemn decision of their own countrymen. But in the course of this inquiry it will be made evident, that in this article we are under no necessity to copy the ancients; and that our critics are guilty of a mistake, in admitting no greater latitude of place and time than was admitted in Greece and Rome.
Suffer me only to premise, that the unities of place and time, are not, by the most rigid critics,<411> required in a narrative poem. In such a composition, if it pretend to copy nature, these unities would be absurd; because real events are seldom confined within narrow limits either of place or of time. And yet we can follow history, or an historical fable, through all its changes, with the greatest facility: we never once think of measuring the real time by what is taken in reading; nor of forming any connection between the place of action and that which we occupy.
I am sensible, that the drama differs so far from the epic, as to admit different rules. It will be observed, “That an historical fable, intended for reading solely, is under no limitation of time nor of place, more than a genuine history; but that a dramatic composition cannot be accurately represented, unless it be limited, as its representation is, to one place and to a few hours; and therefore that it can admit no fable but what has these properties; because it would be absurd to compose a piece for representation that cannot be justly represented.” This argument, I acknowledge, has at least a plausible appearance; and yet one is apt to suspect some fallacy, considering that no critic, however strict, has ventured to confine the unities of place and of time within so narrow bounds.* <412>
A view of the Grecian drama, compared with our own, may perhaps relieve us from this dilemma: if they be differently constructed, as shall be made evident, it is possible that the foregoing reasoning may not be equally applicable to both. This is an article that, with relation to the present subject, has not been examined by any writer.
All authors agree, that tragedy in Greece was derived from the hymns in praise of Bacchus, which were sung in parts by a chorus. Thespis, to relieve the singers and for the sake of variety, introduced one actor; whose province it was to explain historically the subject of the song, and who occasionally represented one or other personage. Eschylus, introducing a second actor, formed the dialogue, by which the performance became dramatic; and the actors were multiplied when the subject represented made it necessary. But still, the chorus, which gave a beginning to tragedy, was considered as an essential part. The first scene, generally, unfolds the preliminary circumstances that lead to the grand event: and this<413> scene is by Aristotle termed the prologue. In the second scene, where the action properly begins, the chorus is introduced, which, as originally, continues upon the stage during the whole performance: the chorus frequently makes one in the dialogue; and when the dialogue happens to be suspended, the chorus, during the interval, is employ’d in singing. Sophocles adheres to this plan religiously. Euripides is not altogether so correct. In some of his pieces, it becomes necessary to remove the chorus for a little time. But when that unusual step is risked, matters are so ordered as not to interrupt the representation: the chorus never leave the stage of their own accord, but at the command of some principal personage, who constantly waits their return.
Thus the Grecian drama is a continued representation without interruption; a circumstance that merits attention. A continued representation without a pause, affords not opportunity to vary the place of action, nor to prolong the time of the action beyond that of the representation. To a representation so confined in place and time, the foregoing reasoning is strictly applicable: a real or feigned action that is brought to a conclusion after considerable intervals of time and frequent changes of place, cannot accurately be copied in a representation that admits no latitude in either. Hence it is, that the unities of place and of time, were, or ought to have been, strictly observed in the Greek<414> tragedies; which is made necessary by the very constitution of their drama, for it is absurd to compose a tragedy that cannot be justly represented.
Modern critics, who for our drama pretend to establish rules founded on the practice of the Greeks, are guilty of an egregious blunder. The unities of place and of time were in Greece, as we see, a matter of necessity, not of choice; and I am now ready to show, that if we submit to such fetters, it must be from choice, not necessity. This will be evident upon taking a view of the constitution of our drama, which differs widely from that of Greece; whether more or less perfect, is a different point, to be handled afterward. By dropping the chorus, opportunity is afforded to divide the representation by intervals of time, during which the stage is evacuated and the spectacle suspended. This qualifies our drama for subjects spread through a wide space both of time and of place: the time supposed to pass during the suspension of the representation, is not measured by the time of the suspension; and any place may be supposed when the representation is renewed, with as much facility as when it commenced: by which means, many subjects can be justly represented in our theatres, that were excluded from those of ancient Greece. This doctrine may be illustrated, by comparing a modern play to a set of historical pictures; let us suppose them five in number, and the resemblance will be complete. Each of the pictures<415> resembles an act in one of our plays: there must necessarily be the strictest unity of place and of time in each picture; and the same necessity requires these two unities during each act of a play, because during an act there is no interruption in the spectacle. Now, when we view in succession a number of such historical pictures, let it be, for example, the history of Alexander by Le Brun,3 we have no difficulty to conceive, that months or years have passed between the events exhibited in two different pictures, though the interruption is imperceptible in passing our eye from the one to the other; and we have as little difficulty to conceive a change of place, however great. In which view, there is truly no difference between five acts of a modern play, and five such pictures. Where the representation is suspended, we can with the greatest facility suppose any length of time or any change of place: the spectator, it is true, may be conscious, that the real time and place are not the same with what are employed in the representation: but this is a work of reflection; and by the same reflection he may also be conscious, that Garrick is not King Lear, that the playhouse is not Dover cliffs, nor the noise he hears thunder and lightning. In a word, after an interruption of the representation, it is no more difficult for a spectator to imagine a new place, or a different time, than at the commencement of the play, to imagine himself at Rome, or in a period of time two thou-<416>sand years back. And indeed, it is abundantly ridiculous, that acritic, who is willing to hold candle-light for sun-shine, and some painted canvasses for a palace or a prison, should be so scrupulous about admitting any latitude of place or of time in the fable, beyond what is necessary in the representation.
There are, I acknowledge, some effects of great latitude in time that ought never to be indulged in a composition for the theatre: nothing can be more absurd, than at the close to exhibit a full-grown person who appears a child at the beginning: the mind rejects, as contrary to all probability, such latitude of time as is requisite for a change so remarkable. The greatest change from place to place hath not altogether the same bad effect. In the bulk of human affairs place is not material; and the mind, when occupied with an interesting event, is little regardful of minute circumstances: 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<417> 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 incidents 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<418> 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 with-hold 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 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 unhappily restoring him to his senses. So difficult it is to support the impression of reality, that much slighter<419> interruptions than the interval between two acts, are sufficient to dissolve the charm: in the 5th 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<420> 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 employ’d in singing, is no less effectual than a total suspension of the representation.
But to open a larger view, I am ready to show, that a representation with proper pauses, is better qualified for making a deep impression, than a continued representation 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<421>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 wandering of thought at the very time possibly of the most interesting scenes.
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 principal 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 any 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<422> 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 animated impressions, as the subject requires. Take for an example the first scene of the Mourning Bride, where soft music,4 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 sub-<423>ject, 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 from 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 transactions within doors, though these commonly are the most important. Such cruel restraint is of itself sufficient to cramp the most pregnant invention; and accordingly Greek writers, in order to preserve unity of place, are reduced to woful improprieties. In the Hippolytus of Euripides,* Phedra, 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<424> cause of her anguish; which at last Phedra, 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 employ’d to inform Clitemnestra 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<425> confidents in plotting the murder of her own children. Terence, by identity of place, is often forc’d to make a conversation within doors be heard on 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 banished 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 4th 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 forc’d, no less frequently, to transgress another rule, derived also from a continued representation. The 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:<426> 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<427> play with a regular chorus, is not more confined in place and time than his plays are. Thus a zealous sectary follow simplicitly 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 interval, 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<428> have no notion of a new act, but where, after a pause or interval, the representation is again put in motion. French writers, generally speaking, are correct in this particular. The English, on the contrary, are so irregular, as scarce to deserve a criticism. Actors, during the same act, not only succeed each other in the same place without connection, but what is still less excusable, they frequently succeed each other in different places. This change of place in the same act, ought never to be indulged; for, beside breaking the unity of the act, it has a disagreeable effect. After an interval, the imagination readily adapts itself to any place that is necessary, as readily as at the commencement of the play; but during the representation, we reject change of place. From the foregoing censure must be excepted the Mourning Bride of Congreve, where regularity concurs with the beauty of sentiment and of language, to make it one of the most complete pieces England has to boast of. I must acknowledge, however, that in point of regularity, this elegant performance is not altogether unexceptionable. In the four first acts, the unities of place and time are strictly observed: but in the last act, there is a capital error with respect to unity of place; for in the three first scenes of that act, the place of action is a room of state, which is changed to a prison in the fourth scene: the chain also of the actors is broken; as the persons introduced in the prison, are different from<429> those who made their appearance in the room of state. This remarkable interruption of the representation, makes in effect two acts instead of one: and therefore, if it be a rule that a play ought not to consist of more acts than five, this performance is so far defective in point of regularity. I may add, that even admitting six acts, the irregularity would not be altogether removed, without a longer pause in the representation than is allowed in the acting; for more than a momentary interruption is requisite for enabling the imagination readily to fall in with a new place, or with a wide space of time. In The Way of the World, of the same author, unity of place is preserved during every act, and a stricter unity of time during the whole play, than is necessary.<430>
[* ]Poet. cap. 6. See also cap. 7.
[† ]Chap. 8.
[* ]See chap. 1.
[† ]See chap. 21.
[1. ]Gauthier de Costes (1614–63), Cassandra, 1644–50 (translated into English 1667).
[‡ ]I am sensible that a commencement of this sort is much relished by readers disposed to the marvellous. Their curiosity is raised, and they are much tickled in its gratification. But curiosity is at an end with the first reading, because the personages are no longer unknown; and therefore at the second reading, a commencement so artificial loses its power even over the vulgar. A writer of genius prefers lasting beauties.
[2. ]Engraving published in 1741.
[* ]Bossu, after observing, with wondrous critical sagacity, that winter is an improper season for an epic poem, and night no less improper for tragedy; admits however, that an epic poem may be spred through the whole summer months, and a tragedy through the whole sunshine hours of the longest summer-day. Du poeme epique, l. 3. chap. 12. At that rate an English tragedy may be longer than a French tragedy; and in Nova Zembla the time of a tragedy and of an epic poem may be the same.
[3. ]See above vol. 1, pp. 101, 322.
[* ]Chap. 2. part 1. sect. 7.
[4. ]The music was by Gottfried Finger.
[* ]Act 1. sc. 6.
[† ]Act 2. sc. 2.
[‡ ]Act 2. sc. 1.
[§ ]Act 2.
[* ]Act 4. at the close.
[† ]Act 5. sc. 4.