Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

315

THE ENGLISH DRAMA.

THE

'HE remains of our early drama may be re

garded from two principal points : one, that of the lover of what is old for the mere sake of its antiquity; the other, that of the critical student of this department of English literature. The labor, or the pastime, of the former investigator may be protracted almost at his pleasure ; for the material is ample, although it is probable that not one in ten of the English plays written before the time of Shakespeare have escaped destruction. But the task of the latter, weary and endless although it seems at first, soon shortens by its very lack of interest. For it does not take long to discover that, with two or three exceptions, the existing English plays written before the year 1580 offer to the modern reader only an unvarying succession of platitude, triviality, coarseness, and bombast, rarely relieved even by traits which indicate the manners and the customs of the people to please whom they were produced. The practised student soon learns to take in the qualities of one of these performances at a rapid glance. The

dreariness of a desert, seen at first sight, is not known the more surely by an examination of the grains of sand which form its dry, interminable waste; nor is it necessary to a knowledge of the English drama before the time of Shakespeare sufficient to the appreciation of the state in which he found it, that the reader should be dragged step by step over the ground which his guide has previously explored. Therefore, as this historical sketch regards the literary rather than the antiquarian aspect of that drama, it may well be brief, even while it seeks to present all that, either by intrinsic or relative interest, can illustrate its theme.

The English drama, like the Greek, has a purely religious origin. The same is true of the drama of every civilized people of modern times. It is worthy of particular remark, that the theatre, denounced by churchmen and by laymen of eminently evangelical profession as base, corrupting, and sinful, not in its abuse and its degradation, but in its very essence, should have been planted and nourished by churchmen, having priests for its first authors and actors, and having been for centuries the chief school of religion and of morals to an unlettered people. The taste for dramatic representation seems to be innate in man. He loves to simulate and to see others simulate character, and seem, without deceit, other than they are. He finds pleasure in the consciousness that the per

sonage before him, still more that he himself, is both John Smith and Julius Cæsar. No people, however rude and savage, except some of the more degraded tribes of Africa, have been yet discovered with whom dramatic performance of some kind, although coarse and rudimentary, was not a customary amusement.

And when the great showman of the day exhibits a dwarf, he shrewdly takes advantage of this craving, and, not trusting to the mere monstrosity of his little monster, he sends him before the people in the character of Achilles or Napoleon; nay, even ventures thus to show the Iron Duke himself his own picture in little. Theatrical representations have probably continued without interruption from the time of Æschylus. Even in the dark ages, which we look back upon too exclusively as a period of gloom, tumult, and blood-shedding, people bought and sold, and were married and given in marriage, and feasted and amused themselves as we do now;

be sure that among their amusements dramatic representations of some sort were not lacking

The earliest dramatic performances in the modern languages of Europe, of which we have any record or tradition, were representations of the most striking events recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Gospels, of some of the stories told in the Pseudo Evangelium or spurious Gospel, and of legends of the saints.

and we may

On the Continent these were called Mysteries; in England, both Mysteries and Miracle-Plays. When miracle-plays were first performed, it seems quite impossible to determine; and indeed, from the universality of the taste for dramatic representations, there can hardly be a more perplexing or fruitless task than the attempt to discover the time and place of their origin. The ancient Hebrews had at least one miracle-play. It was founded upon the exodus of their people from Egypt. Fragments of this play, in Greek iambics, have been preserved to modern times in the works of various authors. The principal characters are Moses, Zipporah, and God in the Bush. The author, one Ezekiel, is called by Scaliger the tragic poet of the Jews. His work is referred by one critic to a date before the Christian era; others suppose that he was one of the Seventy Translators; but Warton, my authority in this instance, supposes that he wrote his play after the destruction of Jerusalem, hoping by its means to warm the patriotism and revive the hopes of his dejected countrymen.

The Eastern Empire long clung to all the glories to which its name, its language, and its position gave it a presumptive title ; and the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were performed after some fashion at Constantinople until the fourth century. At this period, Gregory Nazianzen, archbishop, patriarch, and one of the fathers of the

« AnteriorContinuar »