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THE EDITOR'S PREFACE.
HE particulars to be recorded of the life of ISAAC BICKERSTAFF, the author of the Comic Opera of Lionel and Clarissa, are but few. He was a native of Ireland, and born, probably, about the year 1735. He was Page to Lady Chesterfield, when the celebrated Lord Chesterfield was Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, in 1746. He received the present of a pair of Colours in the Regulars, as is usual on such occasions.
In the year 1756 he published Leucothoe, a Dramatic Poem, in 8vo, which was not acted ; and, in 1760, he produced the Musical Entertainment of Thomas and Sally, or, The Sailor's Return, which was performed at Covent-Garden. In 1762 he produced the Comic Opera of Love in a Village, at Covent Garden; in 1765, The Maid of the Mill; and, in 1768, Lionel and Clarissa, at the same theatre. The musical afterpiece of The Padlock was acted at Drury Lane in 1768. Besides these, he produced several other pieces ; but it is not my intention to notice them particularly. Of the Comedy of The Hypocrite I have spoken already in my Preface to The Provok'd Husband. (See Vol. II. p. 12.) He continued to be a popular writer for the stage till the year 1775, when he produced the after-piece of The Sultan. After this he left the kingdom in disgrace, and I believe that his subsequent history is not known.
The Comic Operas of Bickerstaff were the most popular of any in their time, The Beggar's Opera, perhaps, alone excepted; and, as they still maintain a very conspicuous place upon the Stage, they are objects of attention for the Critic and the Moralist. In all the pieces of Bickerstaff which I have read, there is a great mixture of good and bad; there is certainly some sterling gold, but there is a very considerable portion of alloy; his desiga gene
rally seems to be good, but it is contaminated by indea cency, and that of a gross kind. It is not, however, so inseparably interwoven in the pieces, but that it may be extracted, and the Dramas may maintain a place on a purified stage. Herein I conceive that Bickerstaff has greatly the superiority over Gay: Love in a Village was nearly as popular when it was brought out as the Beggar's Opera ; but the Beggar's Opera appears to me to be entirely unfit for public representation, and not capable of being fitted for it by any alteration whatever. Indeed, I consider it as a reflection upon the author who wrote it, upon the manager who produced it, and upon the public who permitted it to be performed, and also upon erery subsequent manager and audience who have again revived and suffered it.
It is true that the piece abounds with wit and humour, and the plot is not uninteresting ; but no wit or humour can make amends for the licentiousness and gross obscenity which prevail throughout. It is not very difficult, however, to account for its success. Gay was a popular wit; at the time when it was brought out political parties ran high, and the satire was directed against those in power. As persons who have the disposal of preferment will always have more applicants than places, and as those who seek preferment have not always the most humble opi. nion of their own merits, those who do not attain their wishes will attribute the failure to a want of honesty in the patrons, rather than to a want of merit in themselves, or to a deficiency of preferment to reward merit. Hence the great will never be without assailants to attack them: and malevolence seldom wants partizans to second and applaud its aspersions. Thus was the satire of the Beggar's Opera relished at the time, and thus has it always found persons ready to welcome it whenever it is brought forward : and in an audience there are generally too many ready to applaud indecency; and many, who really revolt at it, are fearful to express their disapprobation, lest they should be accused of prudery or squeamishness. The author of the remarks prefixed to Bell's edition of 1791, says
The characters of this " Opera are low and viciousthe good here can derive
no encouragement of virtue, the bad no discourage“ment of vice.” It ought to be consigned to oblivion.
An opera, certainly, is not a natural species of Drama. The idea of a number of persons brought together, all, or most, of whom are singers, and who sing upon all occasions, whether in songs expressing general sentiments, or in verses which can arise solely from the occurrence of the moment, -and these characters, whether old or young, grave or gay, whether the master singing to the servant, or the servant to the master,-mare such incidents as do not take place in real life. The absardity is heightened when the music in the orchestra strikes up, and the performer, quitting the business of the scene and the other characters, (when there are others on the stage,) addresses the song to the audience. There are, undoubtedly, many occasions in real life, which might be imitated upon the stage, in which singing is by no means unnatural, as in particular persons, and on particular incidents. The song which is sung at the opening of Lionel and Clarissa, I conceive to be perfectly proper; while the father is finishing his breakfast, the daughter plays and sings to amuse him. The Duet at the opening of Love in a Village between two females, sitting at work, in the garden, and the Song and Chorus at the opening of The Maid of the Mill by rustics at labour, are also natural. Many persons, in solitude, who have a turn for singing, will there give way to it, or, when in company any thing is said to which an old song appears applicable, under favourable circumstances, many persons might give way to their love of singing. But, when, as in Lionel and Clarissa, Jenkins, the steward of Sir John Flowerdale, who is sent on a message to Colonel Oldboy, sings a song when he leaves him,—when Colonel Oldboy has been encouraging Harman, who was to him a perfect stranger, to run away with another person's daughter, as he supposes, sings " How terribly vex'd the old fellow will be,". when, at the end of the second act, five of the characters sing a Quintet on points which arise out of the circumstances of the scene, conceive that probability and nature are sadly violated.
Music, however, is certainly a very pleasing embellishment to a drama, where properly, and not very lavishly, introduced. A few songs, and from some particular characters, as in some of Shakspeare's plays; and in some more modern plays, as The Battle of Ilexham, The Surrender of Calais, The Foundling of the Forest, The Peasant Boy, and The Royal Oak, are more agreeable to my taste than a professed Opera.
While thus treating of the Opera, I cannot forbear saying a few words upon the custom of dividing it into three acts; a circumstance wbich I suppose was at first accidental, and has continued by prescription. But, accustomed as we are to the division of our first pieces into five portions of less length, the acts of an opera appear to me generally tiresome for want of the usual rest; and I have thought that they would have had a better effect if differently divided. This struck me particularly when I saw The Royal Oak, last September, which seemed to me to be rather heavy in three acts, and I thought would not have appeared so, had it been in five.
But, to return to the Operas of Bickerstaff.
It is objected against Love in a Village, that it is not only borrowed from The Village Opera by Charles Johnson, but also from a variety of other sources. But those who make such objection seem to forget, that Shakspeare, whom we consider as our first dramatist, borrowed from others, as much perhaps as any author we have, and the praise which is given him is for his selection and embellishment; his genius was, conformable to Pope's definition, " that energy which collects, com“bines, amplifies and animates." And, if another author, by doing the same, produce an agreeable and instructive piece, the public are indebted to him : it signifies little whether it be borrowed from a play, a history, or from events which he himself has witnessed. If he attempts to pass off the writings of others as his own, he may justly be accused of literary theft; but, if he acknowledge the sources whence he has derived his materials, he acts conformably to the laws of the republic of letters ancient and modern.