Front Page Titles (by Subject) ON THE ENGLISH COMEDY. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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ON THE ENGLISH COMEDY. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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ON THE ENGLISH COMEDY.
If in most of the English tragedies the heroes are awkward and the heroines extravagant, in return the style is more natural in comedy; but then this style would appear to us rather that of debauchery than of politeness; it distinguishes everything by its proper name; a woman, enraged at her lover, wishes him the pox; a drunkard, in a piece that is very often performed, is disguised like a priest, makes a great riot, and is arrested by the watch: he calls himself a curate; he is asked what cure he has; and he replies, “An excellent one for the . . . .” In one of the most decent comedies, “The Careless Husband,” this husband is represented having his head rubbed by a servant–maid, who is seated by his side: his wife enters, and exclaims: “To what power may one not arrive by being a whore!” Some cynics justify these gross expressions, and quote the example of Horace, who describes, by their proper names, all the parts of the human body, and all the pleasures they give. These are images that succeed with us only when properly veiled; but Horace, who seemed made for the stews as well as for the court, and who perfectly understood the customs of both, speaks as freely of the way of a man with a maid, as if he was describing a walk, or a collation. It has been observed, that the Romans, in the days of Augustus, were as polite as the Parisians are at present; and that this very Horace, who praises the emperor Augustus for reforming the manners, complied, without scruple, with the customs of the times, which permitted the promiscuous use of girls and boys, and of the proper names of things. Strange it is—if anything can be said to be so—that Horace, while speaking the language of a debauchee, should be the favorite of a reformer; and that Ovid, for speaking only the language of gallantry, should be exiled by a debauchee, an impostor, an assassin, called Octavius, who acquired the empire by crimes which merited death.
However this be, Bayle pretends that expressions are indifferent, in which he, the cynics, and the Stoics, deceive themselves; for everything has different names which represent it under different aspects, and afford different ideas of it. The words “magistrate” and “lawyer,” “gentleman” and “squire,” “officer” and “sharper,” “monk” and “friar,” have not the same signification. The consummation of marriage, and everything that contributes to the completion of this great work, will be differently expressed by the parson, the husband, the physician, and the rake. The word the latter of these would make use of would awaken the idea of pleasure, the terms the physician would explain himself in would put you in mind of a dead body, the husband would make that understood with decency which the young libertine had described immodestly, and the parson would attempt to give you the idea of a sacrament. Words then are not in themselves indifferent; for they are not synonymous.
It must further be considered, that though the Romans permitted these gross expressions in satires, which were read but by a few people, they never suffered indecent words on the stage; for, as La Fontaine says: “Chaste are the ears, although the eyes are wanton.” In a word, no expression should be made use of in public, which a modest woman would be ashamed to repeat.
The English have stolen, disguised, and mangled, most of Molière’s plays. They attempted to make a Tartuffe. It was impossible that this subject should succeed at London, because the portrait of a stranger affords very little pleasure. One of the blessings of the English nation is, that she has no Tartuffes: to have hypocrites, it is necessary to have bigots; but the name of bigot is almost unknown there, while that of an honest man is common. He sees no dotards committing to others the care of their souls; no petty tyrants establishing a despotic empire, in some quarter of the city, over a set of superannuated females, who were once coquettes, and always weak; and over men still more weak and despicable. Philosophy, liberty, and the climate, lead the way to misanthropy. London, which has no Tartuffes, abounds with Timons. The “Plain Dealer” is one of the best English comedies: it was written at the time when Charles II. and his splendid court were endeavoring to laugh away the settled gloom that had overspread the nation. Wycherly, the author of this comedy, was the professed admirer of the duchess of Cleveland, the king’s mistress. This man, who passed his life in the gay world, as it is called, painted its follies and absurdities in the strongest colors. The strokes are bolder in Wycherly’s piece than in Molière’s; but they are not so delicate, nor so refined. The English author has corrected the only fault in Molière’s piece, the want of plot and intrigue: the English comedy is interesting, the intrigue is ingenious, but too bold for our manners.
A captain of a ship, of distinguished courage and frankness, and a professed despiser of mankind, has a sincere and prudent friend whom he mistrusts, and a mistress, by whom he is tenderly beloved, whom he slights: whilst he places all his confidence in a false friend, the most unworthy of men; and gives his heart to a jilt, the most perfidious of her sex. He believes, however, that this woman is a Penelope, and this false friend a Cato: he sets–out on an expedition against the Dutch, and leaves all his money, jewels, and other effects, in the hands of this woman to the care of this friend he so firmly relies on; while the true friend, whom he mistrusts, embarks with him, and the lady, to whom he has not deigned to pay the least regard, disguises herself in the habit of a page, and performs the voyage with him, without discovering her sex the whole time.
The captain’s ship being blown up in an engagement, he returns to London in the utmost distress, accompanied by his friend and the page, without knowing the friendship of the one, or the love of the other. He goes immediately to that paragon of women from whom he expects to receive his strong box, and a fresh proof of her fidelity. He finds her married to the sharper he had confided in, and can get no account of the treasure he had committed to her charge. The good man will hardly believe that so virtuous a woman could be guilty of such baseness; when the better to convince him of it, this honest lady falls in love with the little page, and attempts to take him away by force: but as it is necessary, in a dramatic piece, that justice should take place, vice be punished, and virtue meet its reward, at the close of the catastrophe, the captain supplied the place of the page, goes to bed to his inconstant mistress, cuckolds his treacherous friend, runs him through the body, recovers the remains of his effects, and marries his page. You will observe, that this piece is interlarded with an old litigious woman, related to the captain, who is one of the merriest creatures, and one of the best characters, on the stage.
Wycherly has taken another piece from Molière not less bold and singular; it is a sort of “School for Women.” The principal character in the piece is a droll libertine, the terror of the husbands of London; who, to make sure of his business, spreads a report, that, in a late illness, his surgeons had found it necessary to make him a eunuch. Having this curious character, the husbands grant him free access to their wives, and his only difficulty is where to fix his choice. However, at last, he gives the preference to a little country–woman, who has a great share of innocence, with a natural warmth of constitution, by which she makes her husband a cuckold with a good will and readiness that far exceeds the premeditated malice of experienced dames. This piece is not indeed “The School of Morality”; but it is “The School of Wit and True Comic Humor.”
The comedies of Sir John Vanbrugh are more facetious, but less ingenious. The knight was a man of pleasure, and besides a poet and an architect. It is remarked, that he wrote as delicately and as elegantly as he built clumsily: it was he who built the famous castle of Blenheim, the heavy but durable monument of our unfortunate battle of Höchstädt. If the apartments were only as large as the walls are thick, this mansion would be convenient enough. In Sir John Vanbrugh’s epitaph, the earth is invoked to lie heavy on him, who, when living, had laid such heavy loads upon it. This gentleman took a tour into France just before the curious war of 1701, and was put into the Bastille, where he remained some time, without knowing what it was that had procured him this mark of distinction from our ministry. He wrote a comedy in the Bastille, and, what is in my opinion very remarkable, there is not in all the piece the least stroke against the country where he suffered this violence.
Of all the English writers, the late Mr. Congreve has carried the glory of the comic theatre to the highest pitch. He wrote but few pieces, but they are all excellent of their kind: the laws of the drama are strictly observed in them; they are full of characters elegantly varied; no mean pleasantry, not the least indecency, is introduced; you find in every part the language of politeness, even in describing the actions of knaves; which proves that he knew the world, and kept what is called good company. His comedies are the most sprightly and correct, Sir John Vanbrugh’s the gayest, and Wycherly’s the boldest. It is to be observed, that none of these sublime wits have spoken ill of Molière: it is only writers of no repute that have vilified this great man. In a word, do not expect from me any extracts from these English performances that I am so great an advocate of; nor that I should give you a single bonmot or jest from Congreve or Wycherly. One cannot laugh in a translation. If you would be acquainted with the English comedy, you must go to London: you must reside there three years; you must learn the language perfectly, and constantly frequent the theatre. I take no great pleasure in reading Plautus or Aristophanes, because I am neither Greek nor Roman. The delicate turn of bon mots, the allusion, and the apropos, are all lost to a foreigner.
It is not the same in tragedy; that consists alone in the sublime passions, and heroic fooleries, consecrated by the stale error of fables and histories. Œdipus and Electra belong as much to us, to the English, and to the Spaniards, as to the Greeks: but true comedy is the living picture of the absurdities of a country; and, if you are not thoroughly acquainted with the country, you can hardly judge of the painting.
It has been objected to the English, that their scene is bloody, and often covered with dead bodies; that their gladiators fight half naked before young girls, and often return from the combat with the loss of a nose or a cheek. In answer to this, they tell you that they imitate the Greeks in tragedy, and the Romans in the act of cutting off noses: but their theatre is widely different from that of Sophocles and Euripides; and, with respect to the Romans, it must be acknowledged that a nose or a cheek is a trifle in comparison with that multitude of victims that mutually butchered each other in the circus for the diversion of the Roman ladies.
The English have sometimes had dances in their comedies, which were allegorical, and of a very singular taste. Despotic power and a republican state were represented by a very gallant dance in 1709. A king appears in the dance, who, after a few capers, gives his prime minister a very severe kick on the . . . . the minister bestows it on a second person, the second on a third, and, in fine, he who received the last represented the bulk of the nation, which had nobody to revenge itself on: all was performed in cadence. The republican government was represented by a round dance, where everyone equally received and returned the blow. This, however, is the country that has given birth to Addisons, Popes, Lockes, and Newtons.
THE COMEDY OF THE SCOTCH–WOMAN.
Letter from the Translator of “The Scotch–Woman” to Count L’Auragais.
[Voltaire indulged a whim in making believe that this comedy was written by “M. Hume, brother of M. David Hume, the celebrated philosopher.” This gained it a favorable hearing. It was supposed to have been translated by one “Jerôme Carré,” a pseudonym elsewhere used by Voltaire. His “M. Hume” refers to Home, the author of the tragedy “Douglas.” Though of secondary interest, the correspondence fits into these papers on British topics.]
Sir:—The little trifle which I have the honor to put under your protection, is nothing more than an excuse for talking to you with freedom. You have conferred an eternal obligation on the fine arts and true taste, by generously contributing everything in your power toward a theatre in Paris, more worthy of that illustrious city than any she has hitherto seen.
If we no longer see Cæsar and Ptolemy, Athalie, and Jehoida, Mérope and her son crowded upon the stage, and surrounded by a set of wild and licentious young fellows; if our representations have infinitely more decency than ever they had before, it is to you we are indebted for this reformation: the favor done to us is still more considerable, as by our excellency in tragedy and comedy we are distinguished above all nations: however, with regard to other things, we may be rivalled, or even excelled. We have some good philosophers amongst us, but must fairly acknowledge that we are but the followers of Newton, Locke, and Galileo. If France can boast of some historians, yet the Spaniards, the Italians, nay and even the English, may in this respect dispute the preeminence with us. Massillon alone passes with our men of taste here for a tolerably good orator; but how far beneath Archbishop Tillotson is he in the eyes of all Europe beside! I don’t pretend to decide the merit of men of genius, nor is my hand strong enough to hold the balance between them; I only tell you what other people think, and you, sir, who have travelled, must know that every people has its favorite authors, whom it always prefers to those of other nations.
If you descend from works of wit to those where the hand is principally concerned, what painter have we comparable to the great Italian masters? It is only indeed in the Sophoclean art that we are allowed by all the world to excel; and this, no doubt, is the reason why, in many parts of Italy, they often play our pieces, either in our language or their own, and that French theatres are found at St. Petersburg and Vienna.
All that could be found fault with on our stage was the want of action and scenery: our tragedies were often nothing but long conversations in five acts. How could we hazard those pompous spectacles, those striking pictures, those grand and terrible actions, which, well conducted, have the finest effect; how were we to bring the bleeding body of Cæsar on the stage; how could we make a desperate queen go down into her husband’s tomb, and come out of it again dying by the hand of her son? Was it possible to do this in the midst of a crowd that hid from the view of the spectators, mother, son, tomb and all, and took away all the terror of the scene by a contrast truly ridiculous?
From these glaring absurdities you, sir, have in a great measure set us free; and when any writers of genius shall rise up capable of uniting the pomp of scenery, and the lively representation of an action, at the same time both probable and affecting, to strong thoughts, and that fine and natural poetry which constitutes the true merit of the drama; to you, sir, whenever that shall happen, will be due the thanks of our posterity.
But we must not leave the care of this to posterity, but have the courage to tell our own age what useful and noble works our contemporaries are able to produce: the just praise of merit is a perfume reserved only to embalm the dead. Let a man do anything ever so well, while he lives, nobody makes mention of it; or if they do, his merit is always extenuated, or detracted from; and the moment he is dead, that merit is as much exaggerated, on purpose to lessen the reputation of those who are still living.
I would at least have all who read this little work know that there is in Paris more than one worthy and unfortunate man whom you have relieved; and that while you spend your leisure hours in the laborious and painful revival of a useful art lost in Asia, where it was invented, you have revived also a secret yet more rare—that of assisting indigent virtue by concealed charity and beneficence.
I am not ignorant that there is in Paris, and in what is called the polite world, a set of men, who would ridicule those good actions which they are not capable of performing; and it is my knowledge of them, sir, which doubles my respect for you.
P. S.—There is no occasion for signing my name to this letter, as I have never put it at the bottom of any of my works; and when the world sees it at the head of any book, or in any playhouse bill, let them place it to the account of the billsticker or the bookseller.
TO THE GENTLEMEN OF PARIS.
Gentlemen:—I am obliged by the illustrious Mr. F— to expose myself to you face to face; I shall talk to you respectfully and sentimentally; my complaint shall be marked with decorum, and enlightened by the torch of truth. I hope Mr. F— will be confounded when he comes face to face before those honest gentlemen who are not used to favor the malpractices of those who, not being sentimental, make a trade of insulting Tierce & Quart, without any provocation, as Cicero says in his oration “Pro Murena,” page 4.
My name, gentlemen, is Jerome Carré, and I am a native of Montauban, a poor man, without any friends or fortune; and as I have changed my mind about going to Montauban because Mr. L. F.—, of P—, persecutes me there, I am come to implore the protection of the Parisians. I have translated the comedy of “The Scotch–Woman” from Mr. Hume. The comedians, both French and Italian, would have represented it, and it might have been played perhaps five or six times, but Mr. F— freely employs all his interest and authority to prevent my translation from appearing: he who, while he was a Jesuit, encouraged young men so much, is now their enemy: he has written a whole paper against me, and begins by maliciously stating that my translation comes from Geneva, on purpose to make me suspected for a heretic. Moreover, he calls Mr. Hume, Mr. Home; and afterward says that Mr. Hume, the clergyman, author of this piece, is no relative of Mr. Hume, the philosopher. Let him only consult the “Journal Encyclopédique” of the month of April, 1758, which I look upon to be the best of a hundred and sixty–three journals that appear in Europe every month; there he will meet with this piece of intelligence, page 137: “The author of ‘Douglas’ is one Hume, a clergyman, a relation of the famous David Hume, so well known for his impiety.”
I cannot possibly tell whether Mr. David Hume is impious or not; if he is, I am sorry for it, and shall pray to God for him as I should; it follows, however, that Mr. Hume, the clergyman, the relative of David Hume, is author of “The Scotch–Woman,” which is all we wanted to prove; I must own to my shame, that I did believe him to be his brother; but be he brother or cousin, certain it is, that he is the author of “The Scotch–Woman.” It is true, indeed, that in the journal above cited, “The Scotch–Woman” is not expressly named; mention is only made of “Agis” and “Douglas,” but that is a trifle; so undoubtedly is he the author of “The Scotch–Woman,” that I have by me several of his letters, wherein he thanks me for having translated it, one of which I shall submit to the charitable reader.
“My Dear Translator:—You have committed many blunders in your performance, you have quite spoiled the character of Wasp, and struck out his punishment at the end of the piece,” etc.
It is true that I have softened a little the features of Wasp, but it was by advice of some of the best judges in Paris: the French politeness will not admit of some phrases which English freedom makes no scruple of adopting: if I am to blame, it is from excess of delicacy; and I hope the gentlemen of Paris, whose protection I implore, will pardon the faults of my piece, in consideration of my extreme unwillingness to offend them.
Mr. Hume seems to have written his comedy solely to introduce Wasp, whereas I have retrenched as much as I possibly could of his character, as I have likewise part of Lady Alton’s, that I might depart less from your manners, and convince you at the same time of my great respect for the ladies. Mr. F—, with a view of prejudicing me, says, in his paper, p. 114, that he is himself frequently called Wasp, and that many persons of merit have frequently given him that name; but pray, gentlemen, what has this to do with the English character in Mr. Hume’s play? You see he only wants a pretext to deprive me of that protection which I am here entreating you to honor me with; but pray, gentlemen, observe how far his malice carries him: he says, p. 115, that a report did for a long time prevail, that he had been condemned to the galleys, but affirms that the sentence did never take place; but really, gentlemen, whether he ever was sent to the galleys, or may be hereafter, what has this to do with a translation from an English comedy? He talks of the reasons which he says might have brought this misfortune upon him; I shall not enter into his reasons; whether they be good or not, can give Mr. Hume no concern: whether he goes to the galleys or not, I am equally the translator of “The Scotch–Woman.’ I beg, gentlemen, your protection against him, and that you will receive this little piece with that indulgence which you always grant to strangers. I have the honor to be, with the profoundest respect,
Gentlemen, your most obedient humble servant,
Native of Montauban, living near the impasse of St. Thomas; I call impasse, gentlemen, what you term cul de sac, as a street, I apprehend, can signify neither an a—e nor a sack; therefore beg you will make use of the word impasse, which is noble, sonorous, intelligible, and absolutely necessary, instead of cul, and in spite of Sir F—, heretofore T—.
This letter from Mr. Jerome Carré had its desired effect. The piece was represented the beginning of August, 1760; they began late, and somebody asking why they stayed so long, perhaps, replied aloud, a man of wit, Mr. F— is gone up to the Hôtel–de–Ville. As this Mr. F— was weak enough to fancy himself pointed at in the comedy of “The Scotch–Woman,” though Mr. Hume had never seen him in his life, the audience were kind enough to be of the same opinion. The comedy was got by heart, by half the town, before ever it was played; and notwithstanding, was received with prodigious applause. F— was weak enough to assert, in a certain paper, called “L’Année Littéraire,” that “The Scotch–Woman’s” success was owing to a cabal of twelve or fifteen hundred persons who had a sovereign hatred and contempt for him; but Mr. Jerome Carré was far from making any such cabals: all Paris knows he is incapable of doing it; besides, that he had never set eyes on F—, and could not conceive the reason why all the spectators seemed to find him out in the character of Wasp. A famous lawyer, at the second representation, cried out, “Courage, Mr. Carré, avenge the public.” The pit and boxes applauded this speech by repeated claps. Carré, on quitting the theatre, was embraced by above a hundred persons. “How much we are obliged to you,” said they, “Mr. Carré, for doing justice on this man, whose manners are even more detestable than his works.” “O gentlemen,” replied Carré, “you do me more honor than I deserve; I am nothing more than the poor translator of a comedy that is full of interesting scenes and good morality.”
As he was talking thus upon the stairs, he was saluted with two kisses by the w— of F—. “How much I am obliged to you,” said she, “for thus punishing my h—, but you will never make him better.” The innocent Carré was quite confounded; he could not conceive how an English character should be taken for a Frenchman, named F—, and that all France should thus compliment him on so good a likeness. The young man learned by this adventure how much caution is necessary in the world; and found out at the same time that whenever one draws a good portrait of a ridiculous fellow, there will be always some one found out that must resemble him.
The part of Wasp in the play was very inconsiderable, and contributed but little to its real merit of success; for in several of the provinces it received as much applause as in Paris. It may, perhaps, here be answered that this Wasp was as much esteemed in the provinces as in the capital; but it is more probable that the success of Mr. Hume’s piece was owing to the lively and interesting situations to be found in it. Describe a coxcomb, and you may only succeed with a few persons; make your play interesting, and you will please all the world.
Be that as it may, we will lay before our readers the translation of a letter from my Lord Boldthinker,1 to the supposed Hume, on his piece called “The Scotch–Woman.”
“I believe, my dear Hume, you have yet some talents which you are accountable for to your country; it is not enough to have sacrificed this vile Wasp to public derision on all the stages of Europe, where your amiable and virtuous ‘Scotch–Woman’ appears; do more, I beseech you; expose on the stage all those base persecutors of literature, all those hypocrites, who, blackened with every vice themselves, calumniate every virtue in others; bring before the public tribunal those enraged fanatics who spit their venom on innocence; those false slaves who fawn on you with one eye and threaten you with the other; who are afraid to open their mouths before a philosopher, and endeavor secretly to ruin him; expose in open day those detestable cabals that would bury mankind once more in darkness and ignorance. You have already kept silence too long; nothing is gained by trying to soften the obstinate and perverse. There is no other means to render letters respectable but by making those tremble who injure them. Pope had recourse to this before he died; in his ‘Dunciad’ he branded all those with everlasting ridicule who had deserved it; they disappeared immediately and rose up no more; the whole nation applauded him. If the malevolence and ill–nature of the world did at first give some degree of reputation to the enemies of Pope and Swift, reason soon recovered her rights. Our Zoiluses are seldom supported for any long time. Satire is a weapon which we ought to make use of in vindication of human nature; it is not only the Pantolabi and Nomentani, but the Anituses and Melituses of the age whom we ought to scourge. Good verse may transmit to posterity the glory of worthy men and the infamy of bad ones. Go on in your labors, you will never want proper subjects . . . .”
The comedy, a translation of which we have here submitted to the lovers of literature, was written by Mr. Hume, pastor of the church of Edinburgh, already well known by his two fine tragedies played in London; a relative and friend of the celebrated philosopher Mr. Hume, who has with so much boldness and sagacity sounded the depths of metaphysics and morality. These two philosophers do equal honor to Scotland, their native country.
The comedy, entitled “The Scotch–Woman,” seems to be one of those performances which must succeed in every language, as it is a lively portrait of nature, which is everywhere the same; the author has all the simplicity and truth of the valuable Goldoni, joined, perhaps, to more intrigue, plots and spirit. The catastrophe, the character of the heroine and that of Freeport, are different from anything that has ever been exhibited on the French stage, and yet is all pure nature. This piece seems written in the taste of those English romances which have of late years been so well received; there is the same fine picture of the manners, and some lively touches strongly resembling them; nothing stiff or labored; no affectation of wit, or contemptible desire of showing the author, instead of his characters; nothing foreign to the subject; no parade of learning, or trivial maxims to fill up the vacancy of the scene; common justice obliged us to say thus much of the celebrated author. We must, at the same time, confess that we thought ourselves, by the advice of some excellent critics, under the necessity of retrenching something from the part of Wasp in the last act; he was punished, as it was very proper he should be, at the conclusion of the piece; but this poetical justice seemed to throw in a degree of coldness that hurt the lively and interesting catastrophe.
The character of Wasp is withal so base and detestable that we were willing to spare our readers the too frequent view of a thing rather disgusting than comic; we own, indeed, that it is in nature; for in all great cities, where the freedom of the press subsists, we always find some of these wretches who get a livelihood by their impudence; these subaltern Aretines, who get their bread by doing and speaking evil, under the pretext of serving the cause of literature; as if the worms that gnaw the fruits and flowers could ever be useful to them.
One of those illustrious literati, or to express ourselves more properly, one of those two men of genius who presided over the “Dictionnaire Encyclopédique,” that work so necessary to mankind, the suspension of which has put all Europe into a panic, one of these fine great men, in some essays composed by him for his amusement on the art of comedy, has most judiciously remarked that we should bring on the stage the several states and conditions of men. The employment of Mr. Hume’s Wasp is in England a kind of business; there is even a tax raised on the papers written by these gentlemen. Neither the business nor the character seem worthy of the French stage, but the English pen contemns nothing, but often takes pleasure in representing objects whose meanness would offend other nations. The English never mind whether the subject be low or not, provided it be true; they tell us that comedy has a right to handle all characters and all conditions; that everything which is in nature should be painted; that we have a false delicacy, and that the most contemptible character may serve as a contrast for the best and most amiable.
I must here add, in justification of Mr. Hume, that he has had art enough not to bring on his Wasp; but in those parts where the story is not interesting he has imitated those painters who give us a toad, a lizard, or a snake, in one corner of the picture, still preserving the dignity of the principal figures.
What strikes us most remarkably in this piece is that the unities of time, place and action are scrupulously observed. It has withal a merit very seldom found in English or Italian plays, that the stage is never empty. Nothing is more common or more disagreeable than to see two actors go off, and two others come on in their places, without being called or expected. This intolerable fault is not to be found in “The Scotch–Woman.”
With regard to the nature of this piece, it is, properly speaking, high comedy, with a mixture of the simple. The man of true taste and delicacy prefers the smile of the soul to vulgar laughter. There are some parts of it so tender as even to draw tears, though without a studied affectation of the pathetic in any of the characters; for in like manner as true pleasantry consists in not endeavoring to be pleasant, so he who moves us never labors to do it; he is no rhetorician, everything comes from the heart. Woe be to him in any kind of writing who is over fond of pleasing! We are not certain whether this piece could possibly be represented at Paris; our condition and manner of life, which prevent our going often to public spectacles, make it impossible for us to judge what effect an English performance would have in France; we shall only say that, in spite of all our endeavors to do justice to the original, we are far from coming up to the merit of Mr. Hume’s expressions, which are always strong and natural; but the principal beauty of this comedy is the excellence of its moral, suitable to the gravity of the author’s function, at the same time that it has all those lively graces which are so agreeable to the polite world.
Comedy thus written is certainly one of the noblest efforts of the human soul; we must acknowledge it is an art, and a very difficult one; anybody may compile facts; it is easy to learn trigonometry; but every art requires genius, and genius is extremely rare and uncommon.
We cannot finish this preface better than by an extract from our countryman, Montaigne, on spectacles:
“I have played the principal parts in the Latin tragedies of Buchanan and Muretus, which were extremely well represented in our college at Guienne; Andreas Goveanus, our principal, was in this, as well as every other respect, certainly one of the best principals in France, and always superintended these things. It is an exercise which I am far from disapproving in young persons of fashion; even our princes have often practised it in imitation of the ancients, nor has it reflected any disgrace upon them; men of honor may engage in the profession as they did in Greece; Aristoni tragico actori rem aperit; huic & genus & fortuna honesta erant; nec ars, quia nihil tale apud Grœcos pudori est, ea deformabat. I have always thought them ridiculous who condemned such innocent amusements; and those very unjust who will not permit comedians to come into our cities. Good policy always endeavors to bring people together, as well for sports and exercise, as for the most serious acts of devotion; it increases friendship and society, and it is certainly right that all pastimes should be carried on in public, and in the view of the magistrates. The prince, I think, should sometimes gratify the people at his own expense; and it would be very proper that, in populous cities, some particular places should be set apart for public spectacles, which might serve to divert the vulgar from worse employments. To return to my purpose; there is nothing like alluring the passions and affections, otherwise we only make asses loaded with books; knowledge, to be agreeable, should not only lodge with, but should be married to us.”
[1 ]Lord Bolingbroke.