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influence upon those communities only, which are the least remote from barbarism, and that it loses its charms in proportion as those communities advance towards the higher degrees of civilization,
If this be true, then a period must eventually arrive when tragedy and comedy shall perish altogether as represented compositions, and that they will be endurable only in the closet,-a phenomenon, if such it may be called, which has long since actually taken place in Italy, and which is taking place in France and England.
For ourselves, we must confess that if a comedy of sterling merit were placed in our hands, we feel that we should enjoy it infinitely more by reading it beside our study fire, than if we beheld it distributed into parts, and heard it mouthed by the groups of actors and actresses who now occupy the stage of this country. Let it not be supposed that we wish to undervalue the histrionic talents of those individuals. One or two perhaps might be named, whose merits in their respective lines might be favourably compared with those of any of their predecessors. Indeed the whole profession may be said to be respectable; but it has certainly lost its ancient prestige. We well remember that what charmed us chiefly in early age, when we went with breathless expectation to the play-house, was the air of mystery that consecrated everything behind the green curtain. The actors did not then think it necessary to gather a store of popularity for their benefits, by perpetually bowing and scraping to the audience whenever their exertions were applauded. They came on the stage as if it were altogether a world of their own, separate from ours;a region of enchantment in which it was their business simply to sustain the characters which they came to represent, and never to think of
We do not recollect that we ever experienced the illusion of the stage more strongly, than when we first saw Talma, at Paris, in the fine tragedy of “ Sylla.” Not only that great master of his art, but every actor with whom he performed on that occasion, glided in upon the boards wholly pre-occupied with his part, and apparently feeling as if his presence before the audience were a mere incident with which he had no
He did not appear to come from behind a pile of canvass, but from the streets of ancient Rome; every one on the stage, down even to the bearers of the fasces, seemed to think only of the business in which he was actually engaged. It was as if the curtain of the pas had been suddenly raised, and we were permitted to behold a living scene of antiquity preserved, in an atmosphere of its own, from the ordinary effect of time. The tone, the attitude, the costume, were all addressed, as it were, to the subject matter of the piece, and never to the audience. It is obvious how very much an arrangement of this kind tends, on one hand, to identify the artist with the character which he personates, and, on the other, to carry away the spectator from the coldness which admits of criticism, to that state of high-wrought enthusiasm which is sensible only of enjoyment.
But the great aim of actors has of late been to remove, as far as it is possible, everything calculated to maintain any distinction between themselves and their audience. They come forward curtseying and simpering, and bowing and smiling, to the people before the stage, just as if they were entering the drawing-room of a private individual. They have no atmosphere of their own, and, too apparently, no business except
to win our applause, which is the constant object of their ambition. The art seems to be merged in the mere duty of earning a salary, and everybody looks as if he were ashamed of his part, rather than identified with it from a passion for his avocation. The stage was much better off for good actors when by law they were liable to be treated as vagabonds,” than it is at this day, when they are admissible, unless there be some personal demerit, into good society. Formerly their great desire was to be excellent actors : now they think principally of being ladies and gentlemen.
Other causes, however, besides the fading away of the old prestige, have contributed to the decline of theatrical amusements, and promise, before another century perhaps, to put an end to them altogether, when they will be remembered in much the same light in which we now speak of the “Mysteries” formerly enacted in most of the countries of Europe, or of the still earlier performances exhibited on the itinerant stage of Thespis and his followers. The enjoyments of private society are now infinitely more abundant, more rational, and more engaging, than they were even so late as thirty years ago. Both sexes are much more upon a level in point of education than they were then, and the accomplishments of both are capable of affording mutual entertainment not often to be excelled out of doors. We are all readers; and we have, heaven knows, books in abundance for every leisure hour which we can command. Music and painting, conversation, and the luxuriant ease and elegance of our drawing-rooms, often detain those at home now who, under a less civilised state of things, found no rest except in the theatres. Wine is consumed more frugally than in former times, and people are more careful of their health, which they have lately discovered to be one of the greatest blessings of existence.
It was remarked by Captain Forbes, in his examination before the Dramatic Committee, that whenever a period occurred of great political agitation, the theatres were, during that period, almost wholly abandoned. The Queen's trial was a terrible blow to those establishments; they were nearly ruined by the Reform Bill. It is a singular fact, which marks the great difference, in more than one respect, between the two nations, that political effervescence produces quite a contrary result in France; for whenever revolution is at its work there, the theatres are crowded to suffocation. We remain at home when great questions are at issue, because we wish to reflect upon them, and to attain to that state of opinion which is calculated to give them a safe and advantageous direction. The French are not yet under the government of opinion, but of physical power; and they go out from their homes to find sympathy, and to calculate their strength.
In proportion as we feel ourselves more and more under the sway of public opinion, we pay the greater attention to political events, and these produce an excitement which no dramatic effect can rival. Thus, between politics and parliament, the clubs, the meetings of private society, the dinner hours, the attractions of home, the fatigues of business, the immensity of the theatres, which causes most of the words spoken on the stage to vanish in echo, the unblushing displays of the saloons and the upper boxes, and the real decline of the dramatic art itself, both on the part of actors and authors, we apprehend that the days of theatrical amusement are numbered, and indeed are already verging towards their close.
The literature of fiction—that is to say, so far as it is confined to novels which represent well-drawn pictures of modern manners- seems also to have nearly completed its term for the present. The human mind takes every thing, as it were, by intervals. One age is an age of poetry, another is an age of satire, a third is a philosophical age, a fourth is an age of history, of war, of luxury, of reason, or of bubbles. We have had enough of matter-of-fact novels, and it is now high time for us to return to the romantic; at least it is clear enough that we are getting tired of stories of fashionable life, as novels of that class do not go off at present, to use the phrase of the trade, with the vivacity to which, for some years, they have been accustomed.
Indeed, to whatever department of our literature we turn our eyes, we behold it reduced to a low ebb, so far, at least, as originality and novelty are concerned. Splendid illustrations are indeed in progress, which are more or less connected with our literature, and tend in some degree to redeem the mediocrity of the age. We allude particularly to the scenes selected from the Bible, which, though for so many years unthought of, are now affording occupation to no fewer than three different sets of artists. Mr. Murray's prints seem, however, to admit, in our opinion, of " no rival near the throne.” They are designed by Turner, and some of our other first-rate masters, from the sketches of gentlemen who actually visited the scenes which are delineated. We happen to have seen several of those sketches, and when we compare them with the finished design given to the engraver, we are forcibly impressed with the miraculous beauty which genius can impart to every thing it takes under its protection. Rude outlines of buildings and mountains, scarcely distinguishable from each other; masses of trees and towers, skies, and plains, and valleys, pencilled on paper in a kind of chaotic confusion, are, by the talismanic touch of the artist, awakened into order and proportion, disposed in just perspective, relieved by shade and light, and warmed with the freshness and animation of life. Thus we have seen the mists of night brooding over a tract of country with whose character we were unacquainted, and which we set down as unworthy of attention, until, as the day advanced, the dense curtain was folded upward, as if by the hand of some enchanter, when the scene shone forth in every variety of hill and valley, watered with crystal streams, carpeted with flowers, and peopled with herds, and flocks, and peasantry, that gave interest and cheerfulness to the landscape.
But when we put aside the reprints with which the press abounds, and the embellishments which are added, in order to render them more marketable, we have absolutely nothing to exhibit for the living genius of the year. A catalogue is now before us of the books which have been published within the last six months; and certainly a more unattractive bill of fare never was handed to a literary gourmand. We have here, amongst other things, “ The Validity of Thoughts on Medical Reform," which, for aught we know, may be a very valuable, though we fear it must be an exceedingly dull performance. Next comes an Exposition of the False Medium and Barrier excluding Men of Genius from the Public,” which seems to be a sort of verbal kaleidescope. If the author had cut up Johnson's Dictionary, and thrown the words into a tube with a glass at one end of it, there is no reason in the world why he should not have spied out, attending to the operation of shaking from time to time, a composition in every respect as rational, and as well put together, as that which he has produced by a more tedious process. We understand that it is to the same enlightened philosopher we are indebted for another work of much the same kind, entitled " Spirits of Peers and People, a National Tragi-comedy.” These two volumes are altogether unexampled in our literature; they exhibit“ a mind diseased” with the ambition of immortality, and discontented with the world because its claims are not at once recognized as irresistible. The gentleman's friends should take care of him. We recommend him to the attention of the author of the next work on our list—“The Doctor," in two volumes. If this production can do him no good, then let him try what benefit he can derive from the “ Horæ Solitariæ” of Mr. Serle, or from “ The present Corn Laws considered," or from “ The Complete Grazier, which, if they cannot instruct, may at least divert his soul from its present ominous career.
Among the various interesting novelties in our catalogue, we find “ Dr. Tobias Crisp's Works, complete ! !” We have no doubt that Dr. Crisp is a most respectable author, but we must plead guilty to the charge of never having heard of his vame or works before. We thought that Virgil and Lucan had been already sufficiently murdered by our translators; but we perceive that a Mr. Wallis has attempted to cut up both those poets, by rendering into his own English--for it is quite his own—"Select Passages” from the Georgics and the Pharsalia. Pindar and Anacreon may also boast of new translations; and a most learned tract has been published on that vexata quæstio, the “ Round Towers” of Ireland, which, like all other treatises on the same problem, has rendered it more entangled than ever.
It would be idle to enumerate the quantities of printed matter, which, under the form of neatly boarded volumes, have lately seen the light only to perish in it as soon as they are brought forth. The fact is, that the age through which we are now labouring may be properly called the
age of vamp,” the most saleable species of literature being, at present, that which is stitched up from old materials by the literary cobblers who swarm throughout the land, and who are engaged in getting up those countless publications, sold merely at the price of waste paper, which have, within the last three years, deluged the country with an apocryphal species of popular information. The cultivation of a manly taste for letters is perverted by the system of penny journalism, which exists upon plagiarism of the most unqualified description. We máy behold in these paltry sheets the essence of books of considerable price, upon the preparation of which, perhaps, a whole life had been bestowed. Should a new work of any merit happen to be published, it is made at once the common prey of all these locusts of the press. Either in the shape of extract or epitome, we may purchase for a few pence, in the unstamped papers, the most valuable portions of a new book which may have been equitably advertised at a guinea! The consequence of such an operation as this must be, to check at once the circulation of the original, and to deprive both the publisher and the writer of the gains to which they were fairly entitled from those persons, to whose instruction or amusement they had contributed. Is it pro
bable, in such a state of things, that the disappointed author will again return to his study, to toil once more in the production of a composition which may be thus plundered with impunity? Is it to be supposed that any publisher in his senses will again undertake an expensive enterprise, the fruits of which he would certainly see transferred to persons who had no share whatever in his risk, and who only increase the magnitude of his responsibility ?
It has happened to us to have been consulted occasionally with reference to manuscripts of works, which must have consumed several years in their concoction. We have read some of those productions with much admiration for the great learning which they displayed, and several of them we thought well calculated to extend the general range of knowledge, and to be beneficial to society. But we were compelled, from motives of prudence, to advise that the further consideration of them should be deferred for the present, as we saw no chance of their being fairly dealt with in the literary market, so long as there are two powerful corporations, the “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,” and the “Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge," engaged in the avowed enterprise of converting the present stocks of our booksellers into waste paper, and of vamping up publications of their own from the materials which those stocks supply, with a view to sell them at the lowest possible price. While such combinations as these are permitted to interfere with the legitimate trade of the kingdom, we have held, and we must still maintain, that it would be madness in any private bookseller to embark in any undertaking of importance. The object of those corporations seems to be, to nip in the bud the fruit of high genius and liberal education, and for the generous literature of an enlightened nation, to substitute the rifacciamentos of a host of mere operative drudges, wholly destitute of taste or talent.
The catalogue now before us shows, in the clearest manner, the practical effect which the corporate system has already produced, with respect to every branch of composition. If we except the reprints of old works, it does not contain the title of a single volume which is likely to go down to posterity. A writer in the “Quarterly Review” lately gave in that journal an interesting analysis of a most elaborate and valuable history of Turkey, which had been published in Germany, and a good translation of which must have been deemed a great acquisition
our historical literature. But it would have occupied at least four volumes, and there is no bookseller in England who would at present undertake a speculation of that extent, even if the translator were to require no compensation for his labour. The public are now so accustomed to look for all their information to the penny collections, that they would as soon think of buying a set of the obsolete statutes, as a history of Turkey in four volumes!
Will the effect thus already produced upon the literature of the country be limited to the period which has just elapsed ? Unquestionably not. Men of vigorous and enlightened minds may perhaps now and then be found, in some rare instances, willing to fling their treasures abroad, careless of the consequences so far as their pecuniary interests are concerned. But this system cannot be general, nor can it very much add to our staple literature, such as has emanated from an Addison and a Pope, a Johnson, a Goldsmith, a Campbell, a Moore, a