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trimming, time-serving, personal reflection, secret satire, and the like. Now, though in these my compositions, it is visible to any reader of common sense, that I consider nothing but my subject, which is always of an indifferent nature, how is it possible for me to write so clear of party, as not to lie open to the censures of those who will be applying every sentence, and finding out persons and things in it which it has no regard to ? Several paltry scribblers and declaimers have done me the honour to be dull upon me in reflections of this nature; but, notwithstanding my name has been sometimes traduced by this contemptible tribe of men, I have hitherto avoided all animadversions upon them. The truth of it is, I am afraid of making them appear considerable by taking notice of them; for they are like those imperceptible insects which are discovered by the microscope, and cannot be made the subject of observation without being magnified. Having mentioned those few who have shown themselves the enemies of this paper, I should be very ungrateful to the public, did not I at the same time testify my gratitude to those who are its friends, in which number I may reckon many of the most distinguished persons, of all conditions, parties, and professions, in the isle of Great Britain. I am not so vain as to think this approbation is so much due to the performance as to the design. There is, and ever will be, justice enough in the world to afford patronage and protection for those who endeavour to advance truth and virtue, without regard to the passions and prejudices of any particular cause or faction. If I have any other merit in me, it is that I have new pointed all the batteries of ridicule. They have been generally planted against persons who have appeared serious rather than absurd; or, at best, have aimed rather at what is unfashionable than what is
vicious. For my own part, I have endeavoured to make nothing ridiculous that is not in some measure criminal. I have set up the immoral man as the object of derision. In short, if I have not formed a new weapon against vice and irreligion, I have at least shown how that weapon may be put to a right use, which has so often fought the battles of impiety and profaneness.
No. 446. FRIDAY, AUGUST 1, 1712.
Quid deceat, quid non ; quò virtus, quò ferat error.
HOR. ARS POET. 308.
What fit, what not; what excellent, or ill.
SINCE two or three writers of comedy who are now living have taken their farewell of the stage, those who succeed them, finding themselves incapable of rising up to their wit, humour, and good sense, have only imitated them'in some of those loose unguarded strokes, in which they complied with the corrupt taste of the more vicious part of their audience. When persons of a low genius attempt this kind of writing, they know no difference between being merry and being lewd. It is with an eye to some of these degenerate compositions that I have written the following discourse.
Were our English stage but half so virtuous as that of the Greeks or Romans, we should quickly see the influence of it in the behaviour of all the politer
part of mankind. It would not be fashionable to ridicule religion, or its professors; the man of pleasure would not be the complete gentleman; vanity would be out of countenance; and every quality which is ornamental to human nature would meet with that esteem which is due to it. If the English stage were under the same regulations the Athenian was formerly, it would have the same effect that had, in recommending the religion, the government, and public worship of its country. Were our plays subject to proper inspections and limitations, we might not only pass away several of our vacant hours in the highest entertainments, but should always rise from them wiser and better than we sat down to them. It is one of the most unaccountable things in our age, that the lewdness of our theatres should be so much complained of, so well exposed, and so little redressed. It is to be hoped, that some time or other we may be at leisure to restrain the licentiousness of the theatre, and make it contribute its assistance to the advancement of morality, and to the reformation of the age. As matters stand at present, multitudes are shut out from this noble diversion, by reason of those abuses and corruptions that accompany it. A father is often afraid that his daughter should be ruined by those entertainments which were invented for the accomplishment and refining of human nature. The Athenian and Roman plays were written with such a regard to morality, that Socrates used to frequent the one, and Cicero the other. It happened once indeed, that Cato dropped into the Roman theatre when the Floralia were to be represented; and as, in that performance, which was a kind of religious ceremony, there were several indecent parts to be acted, the people refused to see them whilst Cato was present. Martial, on this hint,
made the following epigram, which we must suppose was applied to some grave friend of his, that had been accidentally present at some such entertainment:
Nósses jocosæ dulce cùm sacrum Flora,
EP. i. 3.
Why dost thou come, great censor of thy age,
Didst thou come in but to go out again ? An accident of this nature might happen once in an age among the Greeks or Romans, but they were too wise and good to let the constant nightly entertainment be of such a natnre, that people of the most sense and virtue could not be at it. Whatever vices are represented upon the stage, they ought to be so marked and branded by the poet, as not to appear either laudable, or amiable in the
who is tainted with them. But if we look into the English comedies above mentioned, we would think they were formed upon a quite contrary maxim, and that this rule, though it held good upon the heathen stage, was not to be regarded in Christian theatres. There is another rule likewise, which was observed by authors of antiquity, and which these modern geniuses have no regard to, and that was, never to choose an improper subject for ridicule. Now a subject is improper for ridicule, if it is apt to stir up horror and commiseration rather than laughter. For this reason, we do not find any comedy, in so polite an author as Terence, raised upon the violations of the marriage-bed. The falsehood of the wife
wife or husband has given occasion to noble tragedies; but a Scipio or a Laelius would have looked upon incest or murder to have been as proper subjects for comedy. On the contrary, cuckoldom is the basis of most of our modern plays. If an alderman appears upon the stage, #: may be sure it is in order to be cuckolded. An husband that is a little grave or elderly, generally meets with the same fate. Knights and baronets, country squires, and justices of the quorum, come up to town for no other purpose. I have seen poor Dogget cuckolded in all these capacities. In short, our English writers are as frequently severe upon this innocent unhappy creature, commonly known by the name of a cuckold, as the ancient comic writers were upon an eating parasite, or a vain-glorious soldier. At the same time the poet so contrives matters, that the two criminals are the favourites of the audience. We sit still, and wish well to them through the whole play, are pleased when they meet with proper opportunities, and out of humour when they are disappointed. The truth of it is, the accomplished gentleman upon the English stage, is the person that is familiar with other men's wives, and indifferent to his own ; as the fine woman is generally a composition of sprightliness and falsehood. I do not know whether it proceeds from barrenness of invention, depravation of manners, or ignorance of mankind, but I have often wondered that our ordinary poets cannot frame to themselves the idea of a fine man who is not a whoremaster, or of a fine woman that is not a jilt, I have sometimes thought of compiling a system of ethics out of the writings of these corrupt poets under the title of Stage Morality. But I have been diverted from this thought by a project which has