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to draw in Purchaserį, like the Head of Shakespeare on his Sign. My Letter too being anonymous, your Name at the Head, will more than compensate for the Want of mine at the End of it: And our above-mentioned Friend is, no Doubt, too well versed in both his Occupations, not to know the Consequence of Secrecy in a Bookseller, as well as the Necessity of concealing from the Publick many Things that pass behind the Curtain.
There is perhaps no Country in the World more subordinate to the Power of Fashion than our own. Every Whim, every Word, every Vice, every Virtue, in its Turn becomes the Mode, and is followed with a certain Rage of Approbation for a Time. The favourite Stile in all the polite Arts, and the reigning Taste in Letters, are as notoriously Objects of Caprice as Architecture and Dress. A new Poem, or Novel, or Farce, are as inconsiderately extolled or decried as a Ruff or a Chinese Rail, a Hoop or a Bow Window. Hence it happens, that the publick Taste is often vitiated : Or if, by Chance, it has made a proper Choice, becomes partially attached to one Species of Excellence, and remains dead to the Sense of all other Merit, however equal, or superior.
I think I may venture to affert, with a Confidence, that on Reflection it will appear to be true, that the eminent Class of Writers, who flourished at the Beginning of this Century, have almost entirely superfeded their illustrious Predeceffors. The Works of Congreve, Vanbrugh, Steele, Aliison, Pope, Swift, Gay, &c. &c. are the chief Study of the Million : I fay, of the Million ; for as to those few, who are not only familiar with all our own Authors, but are also conversant with the Ancients, they are not to be circumscribed by the narrow Limits of the Fashion. Shakespeare and Milton seem to stand alone, like firstrate Authors, amid the general Wreck of old English
Literature. Milton perhaps owes much of his present Fame to the generous Labours and good Taste of Addison. Shakespeare has been transmitted down to us with successive Glories; and you, Sir, have continued, or rather increased, his Reputation. You have, in no fulsome Strain of Compliment, been stiled the Best Commentator on his Works : But have you not, like other Commentators, contracted a narrow, exclusive, Veneration of your Author ? Has not the Contemplation of Shakespeare's Excellencies almost dazzled and extinguished your Judgement, when directed to other Objects, and made you blind to the Merit of his Cotemporaries? Under your Dominion, have not Beaumont and Fletcher, nay even Johnson, suffered a Kind of theatrical Disgrace? And has not poor Maslinger, whose Cause I have now undertaken, been permitted to languish in Obscurity, and remained almost entirely. unknown?
To this perhaps it may be plausibly answered, nor indeed without some Foundation, that many of our old Plays, though they abound with Beauties, and are raised much above the humble Level of later. Writers, are yet, on several Accounts, unfit to be exhibited on the modern Stage; that the Fable, instead of being raised on probable Incidents in real Life, is generally built on some foreign Novel, and attended with romantick Circumstances; that the Conduct of these extravagant Stories is frequently uncouth, and infinitely offensive to that dramatick Correctness prescribed by late Criticks, and practifed, as they pretend, by the French Writers; and that the Characters, exhibited in our old Plays, can have no pleasing Effect on a modern Audience, as they are so totally different from the Manners of the present Age.
These, and such as these, might once have appeared reasonable Objections : But you, Sir, of all
Perfons, ca urge them with the least Grace, fince your Practice has so fully proved their Insufficiency. Your Experience must have taught you, that when a Piece has any striking Beautics, they will cover a Multitude of Inaccuracies ; and that a Play need not be written on the feverest Flan, to please in the Representation. The Mind is foon familiarized to Irregularities, which do not in against the Truth of Nature, but are merely Violations of that strict Decoruin of late so earnestly insisted on.
What patient Spectators are wc of the Inconfiftencies that confeffcdly prevail in our darling Shakespeare! What critical Catcall ever proclaimed the Indecency of introducing the Stocks in the Tragedy of Lear? How quietly do we fee Gluier take his imaginary Leap from Dover Cliff! Or to give a stronger instance of Patience, with what a philosophical Calmness do the Audience dose over the tedious, and uninteresting, Love-Scenes, with which the bungling Hand of Tate has coarsely pieced and patched that rich Work of Shakespeare!--Toinstance further from Shakespeare himself, the Grave-diggers in Hamlet (not to mention Polonius) are not oniy endured, but applauded; the very Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is allowed to be Nature; the Tranfactions of a whole History are, without Offence, begun and compleated in less than three Hours ; and we are agreeably wafted by the Chorus, or oftener without so much Ceremony, from one End of the World to another.
It is very true, that it was the general Practice of our old Writers, to found their Pieces on some foTeign Novel; and it seemed to be their chief Aim to take the Story, as it stood, with all its appendant Incidents of every Complexion, and throw it into Scenes. This Method was, to be sure, rather inartificial, as it at once overloaded and embarrafied the Fable, leaving it destitute of that beautiful dramatick Connection, which enables the Mind to take in all
its Circumstances with Facility and Delight. But I am still in Doubt, whether
many Writers, who come nearer to our own Times, have much mended the Matter. What with their Plots, and Double-Plots, and Counter-Plots, and Under-Plots, the Mind is as much perplexed to piece out the Story, as to put together the disjointed Parts of our ancient Drama. The Comedies of Congreve have, in my Mind, as little to boast of Accuracy in their Construction, as the Plays of Shakespeare ; nay, perhaps, it might be proved that, amidst the most open Violation of the lefser critical Unities, one Point is more steadily persued, one Character more uniformly shewn, and one grand Purpose of the Fable more evidently accomplished in the Production of Shakespeare than of Congreve.
These Fables it may be further objected) founded on romantick Novels, are unpardonably wild and extravagant in their Circumstances, and exhibit too little even of the Manners of the Age in which they were written. The Plays too are in themselves a Kind of heterogeneous Composition ; scarce any of them being, strictly speaking, a Tragedy, Comedy, or even Tragi-Comedy, but rather an indigested Jumble of every Species thrown together.
This Charge must be confessed to be true: But upon Examination it will, perhaps,, be found of less Consequence than is generally imagined. These Dramatick Tales, for so we may best stile such Plays, have often occasioned much Picasure to the Reader and Spectator, which could not possibly have been conveyed to them by any other Vehicle. Many an interesting Story, which, from the Diversity of its Circumstances, cannot be regularly reduced either to Tragedy or Comedy, yet abounds with Character, and contains several affecting Situations: And why such a Story should lose its Force, dramatically related and affifted by Representation, when it
pleases, under the colder Form of a Novel, is difficult to conceive. Experience has proved the Effect of such Fictions on our Minds; and convinced us, that the Theatre is not that barren Ground, wherein the Plants of Imagination will not flourish. The Tempeft, the Midsummer Night's Dream, the Merchant of Venice, As you like it, Twelfth Night, the Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, (with a much longer List that might be added from Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and their Cotemporaries, or immediate Successors) have most of them, within all our Memories, been ranked among the most popular Entertainments of the Stage. Yet none of these can be denominated Tragedy, Comedy, or Tragi-Comedy. The Play Bills, I have observed, cautionly stilethem Plays: And Plays indeed they are, truly such, if it be the End of Plays to delight and inítruct, to captivate at once the Ear, the Eye, and the Mind, by Situations forcibly conceived, and Characters truly delineated.
There is one Circumstance in Dramatick Poetry, which, i think, the chastised Notions of our modern Criticks do not permit them sufficiently to consider. Dramatic Nature is of a more large and liberal Quality than they are willing to allow. It does not confift merely in the Representation of real Characters, Characters, acknowledged to abound in common Life; but may be extended also to the Exhibition of imaginary Beings. To create, is to be a Poet indeed; to draw down Beings from another Sphere, and endue them with suitable Passions, Af. fections, Dispositions, allotting them at the same Time proper Employment; to body forth, by the Powers of Imagination, the Forms of Things unknown, and to give to airy Nothing a local Habitation and a Name, surely requires a Genius for the Drama equal, if not superior, to the Delineation of Personages, in the ordinary Course of Nature.