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together. 'The business of their dramatic characters will not stand the moral test. We screw everything up to that. Idle gåılantry in a fiction, a dream, the passing pageant of an evening, startles us in the same way as the alarming indications of profligacy in a son or ward in real life should startle a parent or guardian. We have no such middle emotions as dramatic interests left. We see a stage libertine playing his loose pranks of two hours' duration, and of no after consequence, with the severe eyes which inspect real vices, with their bearings upon two worlds. We are spectators to a plot or intrigue, (not reducible in life to the point of strict morality,) and take it all for truth. We substitute a real for a dramatic person, and judge him accordingly. We try him in our courts, from which there is no appeal to the dramatis per
peers. We have been spoiled with-not sentimental comedy—but a tyrant far more pernicious to our pleasures which has succeeded to it, the exclusive and all-devouring drama of common life; where the moral point is everything ; where, instead of the fictitious, half-believed personages of the stage, (the phantoms of old comedy,) we recognise ourselves, our brothers, aunts, kinsfolk, allies, patrons, enemies—the same as in life-with an interest in what is going on so hearty and substantial, that we cannot afford our moral judgment, in its deepest and most vital results, to compromise or slumber for a moment. What is there transacting, by no modification is made to affect us in any other manner than the same events or characters would do in our relationships of life.
We carry our fireside concerns to the theatre with us. We do not go thither, like our ancestors, to escape from the pressure of reality, so much as to confirm our experience of it; to make assurance double, and take a bond of fate. We must live our toilsome lives twice over, as it was the mournful privilege of Ulysses to descend twice to the shades. All that neutral ground of character which stood between vice and virtue, or which, in fact, was indifferent to neither, where neither properly was called in question ; that happy breathing-place from the burden of a perpetual moral questioningthe sanctuary and quiet Alsatia of hunted casuistry—is broken up and disfranchised, as injurious to the interests of society. The privileges of the place are taken away by law. We dare not dally with images or names of wrong.
We bark like foolish dogs at shadows. We dread infection from the scenic representations of disorder, and fear a painted pustule. In our anxiety that our morality should not take cold,
up in a great blanket surtout of precaution againsi the breeze and sunshine.
I confess for myself that (with no great delinquencies to answer for) I am glad for a season to take an airing beyond the diocess of the strict conscience—not to live always in the precincts of the law-courts—but now and then, for a dreamwhile or so, to imagine a world with no meddling restrictions -to get into recesses whither the hunter cannot follow me
“ Secret shades Of woody Ida's inmost grove,
While yet there was no fear of Jove"I come back to my cage and my restraint the fresher and more healthy for it. I wear my shackles more contentedly for having respired the breath of an imaginary freedom. I do not know how it is with others, but I feel the better always for the perusal of one of Congreve's—nay, why should I not add even of Wycherley's comedies. I am the gayer at least for it; and I could never connect those sports of a witty fancy in any shape with any result to be drawn from them to imitation in real life. They are a world of themselves almost as much as fairy land. Take one of their characters, male or female, (with few exceptions they are alike,) and place it n a modern play, and my virtuous indignation shall rise against the profligate wretch as warmly as the Catos of the pit could desire ; because in a modern play I am to judge of the right and the wrong. The standard of police is the measure of political justice. The atmosphere will blight it, it cannot live here. It has got into a moral world, where it has no business, from which it must needs fall headlong : as dizzy, and incapable of making a stand, as a Swedenborgian bad spirit that has wandered unawares into the sphere of one of his good men, or angels. But in its own world do we feel the creature is so very bad ? The Fainalls and the Mirabels, the Dorimants and the Lady Touchwoods, in their
own sphere, do not offend my moral sense ; in fact, they do not appeal to it at all. They seem engaged in their proper element. They break through no laws, or conscientious restraints. They know of none. They have got out of Christendom into the land—what shall I call it ?—of cuckoldrythe Utopia of gallantry, where pleasure is duty, and the manners perfect freedom. It is altogether a speculative scene of things, which has no reference whatever to the world that is No good person can be justly offended as a spectator, because no good person suffers on the stage. Judged morally, every character in these plays-the few exceptions are only mistakes -is alike essentially vain and worthless. The great art of Congreve is especially shown in this, that he has entirely excluded from his srenes—some little generosities in the part
of Angelica perhaps excepted---not only anything like a faultless character, but any pretensions to goodness or good feelings whatsoever. Whether he did this designedly or instinctively, the effect is as happy as the design (if design) was bold. I used to wonder at the strange power which his Way of the World in particular possesses of interesting you all along in the pursuit of characters, for whom you absolutely care nothing--for you neither hate nor love his personages—and I think it is owing to this very indifference for any,
endure the whole. He has spread a privation of moral light, I will call it, rather than by the ugly name of palpable darkness, over his creations; and his shadows flit before you without distinction or preference. Had he introduced a good character, a single gush of moral feeling, a revulsion of the judgment to actual life and actual duties, the impertinent Goshen would have only lighted to the discovery of deformities, which now are none, because we think them none.
Translated into real life, the characters of his and his friend Wycherley's dramas are profligates and strumpetsthe business of their brief existence, the undivided pursuit of lawless gallantry. No other spring of action or possible motive of conduct is recognised; principles which, universally acted upon, must reduce this frame of things to a chaos. But we do them wrong in so translating them. No such ef fects are produced in their world.
When we are among them we are among a chaotic people. We are uot to judge them by our usages.
No reverend institutions are insulted by their proceedings—for they have none among them. No peace of families is violated—for no family ties exist among them. No purity of the marriage-bed is stained - for none is supposed to have a being. No deep affections are disquieted -no holy wedlock bands are snapped asunder—for affection's depth and wedded faith are not of the growth of that soil. There is neither right nor wrong-gratitude or its oppositeclaim or duty--paternity or sonship. Of what consequence is it to virtue, or how is she at all concerned about it, whether Sir Simon or Dapperwit steal away Miss Martha ; or who is the father of Lord Froth's or Sir Paul Pliant's children?
The whole is a passing pageant, where we should sit as unconcerned at the issues, for life or death, as at a battle of the frogs and mice. But, like Don Quixote, we take part against the puppets, and quite as impertinently. We dare not contemplate an Atlantis, a scheme, out of which our coxcombical moral sense is for a little transitory case excluded. We have not th
urage to imagine a state of things for which there is neither reward nor punishment. We cling to the painful necessities of shame and blame. We would endict our very dreams.
Amid the mortifying circumstances attendant upon growing old, it is something to have seen the School for Scandal in its glory. This comedy grew out of Congreve and Wycherley, but gathered some allays of the sentimental comedy which followed theirs. It is impossible that it should be now acted, though it continues, at long intervals, to be announced in the bills. Its hero, when Palmer played it at least, was Joseph Surface. When I remember the gay boldness, the graceful, solemn plausibility, the measured step, the insinuating voice -to express it in a word--the downright acted villany of the part, so different from the pressure of conscious actual wickedness-the hypocritical assumption of hypocrisy, which made Jack so deservedly a favourite in that character, I must needs conclude the present generation of play-goers more virtuous than myself, or more dense. I freely confess that he divided the palm with me with his better brother; that, in fact, I liked him quite as well. Not but there are passages-like that, for instance, where Joseph is made to refuse a pittance to a poor relation-incongruities which Sheridan was forced upon by the attempt to join the artificial with the sentimental comedy, either of which must destroy the other—but over these obstructions Jack's manner floated him so lightly, that a refusal from him no more shocked you than the easy compliance of Charles gave you in reality any pleasure : you got over the paltry question as quickly as you could, to get back into the regions of pure comedy, where no cold moral reigns. The highly artificial manners of Palmer in this character counteracted every disagreeable impression which you might have received from the contrast, supposing them real, between the two brothers. You did not believe in Joseph with the same faith with which you believed in Charles. The latter was a pleasant reality, the former a no less pleasant poetical foil to it. The comedy, I have said, is incongruous, a mixture of Congreve with sentimental incompatibilities: the gayety, upon the w.hole, is buoyant; but it required the consummate art of Palmer to reconcile the discordant elements.
A player with Jack's talents, if we had one now, would not dare to do the part in the same manner. He would instinctively avoid every turn which might tend to unrealize, and so to make the character fascinating. He must take his cue from his spectators, who would expect a bad man and a good man as rigidly opposed to each other as the deathbeds of those geniuses are contrasted in the prints, which, I am sorry
to say, have disappeared from the windows of my old friend Carrington Bowles, of St. Paul's Churchyard memory--(an exhibition as venerable as the adjacent cathedral, and almost coeval) of the bad and good man at the hour of death ; where the ghastly apprehensions of the former- and truly the grim phantom, with his reality of a toasting-fork, is not to be despised—so finely contrast with the meek complacent kissing of the rod-taking it in like honey and butter-with which the latter submits to the scythe of the gentle bleeder, Time, who wields his lancet with the apprehensive finger of a popular young ladies' surgeon. What flesh, like loving grass, would not covet to meet half way the stroke of such a delicate mower? John Palmer was twice an actor in this exquisite part. He was playing to you all the while that he was playing upon Sir Peter and his lady. You had the first intimation of a sentiment before it was on his lips. His altered voice was meant to you, and you were to suppose that his fictitious coflutterers on the stage perceived nothing at all of it.
What was it to you if that half-reality, the husband, was overreached by the puppetry-or the thin thing (Lady Teazle's reputation) was persuaded it was dying of a plethory? The fortunes of Othello and Desdemona were not concerned in it. Poor Jack has passed from the stage in good time, that he did not live to this our age of seriousness. The pleasant old 'Teazle King, too, is gone in good time. His manner would scarce have passed current in our day. We must love or hate--acquit or condemn--censure or pity-exert our detestable coxcombry of moral judgment upon everything. Joseph Surface, to go down now, must be a downright revolting villain—no compromise—his first appearance must shock and give horror-his specious plausibilities, which the pleasurable faculties of our fathers welcomed with such hearty greetings, knowing that no harm (dramatic harm even) could come, or was meant to come of them, must inspire a cold and killing aversion. Charles (the real canting person of the scene
- for the hypocrisy of Joseph has its ulterior legitimate ends, but his brother's professions of a good heart centre in downright self-satisfaction) must be loved and Joseph hated. To balance one disagreeable reality with another, Sir Peter Teazle must be no longer the comic idea of a fretful old bachelor bridegroom, whose teasings (while King acted it) were evidently as much played off at you as they were meant to concern anybody on the stage-he must be a real person, capable in law of sustaining an injury—a person towards whom duties are to be acknowledged--the genuine crim. con. antagonist of the villanous seducer Joseph. To realize him. ,