It is peculiar to Italy, that from the earliest times its people have displayed a native talent for a merry, amusing, though very rude buffoonery, in extemporary speeches and songs, with accompanying appropriate gestures; though it has seldom been coupled with true dramatic taste. This latter assertion will be fully justified when we shall have examined all that has been accomplished in the higher walks of the Drama in that country, down to the most recent times. The former might be easily substantiated by a number of circumstances, which, however, would lead us too far from our object into the history of the Saturnalia and similar customs, Even of the wit which prevails in the dialogues of the Pasquino and the Marforio and of their apposite and popular ridicule on passing events, many traces are to be found even in the times of the Emperors, however little disposed they were to be indulgent to such liberties. But what is more immediately connected with our present purpose is the conjecture—that in these Mimes and Atellane Fables we have perhaps the first germ of the Commedia dell' arte, the improvisatory farce with standing masks. A striking affinity between the latter and the Atellanae consists in the employment of dialects to produce a ludicrous effect. But how would Harlequin and Pulcinello be astonished were they to be told that they descended in a direct line from the buffoons of the ancient Romans, and even from the Oscans!—With what drollery would they requite the labours of the antiquarian who should trace their glorious pedigree to such a root! From the figures on Greek vases, we know that the grotesque masks of the Old Comedy bore a dress very much resembling theirs: long trousers, and a doublet with sleeves, articles of dress which the Greeks, as well as the Romans, never used except on the stage. Even in the present day Zanni is one of the names of Harlequin; and Sannio in the Latin farces was a buffoon, who, according to the accounts of ancient writers, had a shaven head, and a dress patched together of gay parti- coloured pieces. The exact resemblance of the figure of Pulcinello is said to have been found among the frescoes of Pompeii. If he came originally from Atella, he is still mostly to be met with in the old land of his nativity. The objection that these traditions could not well have been preserved during the cessation for so many centuries of all theatrical amusements, will be easily got over when we recollect the licences annually enjoyed at the Carnival, and the Feasts of Fools in the middle ages.
The Greek Mimes were dialogues in prose, and not destined for the stage; the Roman were in verse, were acted, and often delivered extempore. The most celebrated authors of this kind were Laberius and Syrus, contemporaries of Julius Caesar. The latter when dictator, by an imperial request, compelled Laberius, a Roman knight, to appear publicly in his own Mimes, although the scenic employment was branded with the loss of civil rights. Laberius complained of this in a prologue, which is still extant, and in which the painful feeling of annihilated self-respect is nobly and affectingly expressed. We cannot well conceive how, in such a state of mind, he could be capable of making ludicrous jokes, nor how, with so bitter an example of despotic degradation [Footnote: What humiliation Caesar would have inwardly felt, could he have foreseen that, within a few generations, Nero, his successor in absolute authority, out of a lust for self-degradation, would expose himself frequently to infamy in the same manner as he, the first despot, had exposed a Roman of the middle rank, not without exciting a general feeling of indignation.] before their eyes, the spectators could take any delight in them. Caesar, on his part, kept his engagement: he gave Laberius a considerable sum of money, and invested him anew with the equestrian rank, which, however, could not re-instate him in the opinion of his fellow-citizens. On the other hand, he took his revenge for the prologue and other allusions by bestowing the prize on Syrus, the slave, and afterward the freedman and scholar of Laberius in the mimetic art. Of the Mimes of Syrus we have still extant a number of sentences, which, in matter and elegant conciseness of expression, are deserving of a place by the side of Menander's. Some of them even go beyond the moral horizon of serious Comedy, and assume an almost stoical elevation. How was the transition from low farce to such elevation effected? And how could such maxims be at all introduced, without the same important involution of human relations as that which is exhibited in perfect Comedy? At all events, they are calculated to give us a very favourable idea of the Mimes. Horace, indeed, speaks slightingly of the literary merit of Laberius' Mimes, either on account of the arbitrary nature of their composition, or of the negligent manner in which they were worked out. However, we ought not to allow our own opinion to be too much influenced against him by this critical poet; for, from motives which are easy to understand, he lays much greater stress on the careful use of the file, than on original boldness and fertility of invention. A single entire Mime, which time unfortunately has denied us, would have thrown more light on this question than all the confused notices of grammarians, and all the conjectures of modern scholars.
The regular Comedy of the Romans was, for the most part, palliata, that is, it appeared in a Grecian costume, and represented Grecian manners. This is the case with all the comedies of Plautus and Terence. But they had also a comoedia togata; so called from the Roman dress which was usually worn in it. Afranius is celebrated as the principal writer in this walk. Of these comedies we have no remains whatever, and the notices of them are so scanty, that we can-not even determine with certainty whether the togatae were original comedies of an entirely new invention, or merely Greek comedies recast with Roman manners. The latter case is the more probable, as Afranius lived in a period when Roman genius had not yet ventured to try a flight of original invention; although, on the other hand, it is not easy to conceive how the Attic comedies could, without great violence and constraint, have been adapted to local circumstances so entirely different. The tenor of Roman life was, in general, earnest and grave, although in private society they had no small turn for wit and joviality. The diversity of ranks among the Romans, politically, was very strongly marked, and the opulence of private individuals was frequently almost kingly; their women lived much more in society, and acted a much more important part than the Grecian women did, and from this independence they fully participated in the overwhelming tide of corruption which accompanied external refinement. The differences being so essential, an original Roman comedy would have been a remarkable phenomenon, and would have enabled us to see these conquerors of the world in an aspect altogether new. That, however, this was not accomplished by the comoedia togata, is proved by the indifferent manner in which it is mentioned by the ancients. Quinctilian does not scruple to say, that the Latin literature limps most in comedy; this is his expression, word for word.
With respect to Tragedy, we must, in the first place, remark, that the Grecian theatre was not introduced into Rome without considerable changes in its arrangement. The chorus, for instance, had no longer a place in the orchestra, where the most distinguished spectators, the knights and senators, now sat; but it remained on the stage itself. Here, then, was the very disadvantage which we alleged in objection to the modern attempts to introduce the chorus. Other deviations from the Grecian mode of representation were also sanctioned, which can hardly be considered as improvements. At the very first introduction of the regular drama, Livius Andronicus, a Greek by birth, and the first tragic poet and actor of Rome, in his monodies (lyrical pieces which were sung by a single person, and not by the whole chorus), separated the song from the mimetic dancing, the latter only remaining to the actor, in whose stead a boy, standing beside the flute-player, accompanied him with his voice. Among the Greeks, in better times, the tragic singing, and the accompanying rhythmical gestures, were so simple, that a single person was able to do at the same time ample justice to both. The Romans, however, it would seem, preferred separate excellence to harmonious unity. Hence arose, at an after period, their fondness for pantomime, of which the art was carried to the greatest perfection in the time of Augustus. Prom the names of the most celebrated of the performers, Pylades, Bathyllus, &c., it would appear that it was Greeks that practised this mute eloquence in Rome; and the lyric pieces which were expressed by their dances were also delivered in Greek. Lastly, Roscius frequently played without a mask, and in this respect probably he did not stand alone; but, as far as we know, there never was any instance of it among the Greeks. The alteration in question might be favourable to the more brilliant display of his own skill, and the Romans, who were pleased with it, showed here also that they had a higher relish for the disproportionate and prominent talents of a virtuoso, than for the harmonious impression of a work of art considered as a whole.
In the tragic literature of the Romans, two epochs are to be distinguished: the first that of Livius Andronicus, Naevius, Ennius, and also Pacuvius and Attius, who both flourished somewhat later than Plautus and Terence; and the second, the refined epoch of the Augustan age. The former produced none but translators and remodellers of Greek works, but it is probable that they succeeded better in Tragedy than in Comedy. Elevation of expression is usually somewhat awkward in a language as yet imperfectly cultivated, but still its height may be attained by perseverance; but to hit off the negligent grace of social wit requires natural humour and refinement Here, however, (as well as in the case of Plautus and Terence,) we do not possess a single fragment of any work whose Greek original is extant, to enable us to judge of the accuracy and general felicity of the copy; but a speech of considerable length from Attius' Prometheus Unbound, is in no respect unworthy of—Aeschylus, and the versification, also, is much more careful [Footnote: In what metres could these tragedians have translated the Greek choral odes? Horace declares the imitation, in Latin, of Pindar, whose lyrical productions bear great resemblance to those of Tragedy, altogether impracticable. Probably they never ventured into the labyrinths of the choral strophes, which were neither calculated for the language nor for the ear of the Romans. Beyond the anapest, the tragedies of Seneca never ascend higher than a sophic or choriambic verse, which, when monotonously repeated, is very disagreeable to the ear.] than that of the Latin comic writers generally. This earlier style was carried to perfection by Pacuvius and Attius, whose pieces alone kept their place on the stage, and seem to have had many admirers down to the times of Cicero, and even still later. Horace directs his jealous criticism against these, as well as all the other old poets.
It was the ambition of the contemporaries of Augustus, to measure their powers with the Greeks in a more original manner; but their labours were not attended with equal success in every department. The number of amateurs who attempted to shine in Tragedy was particularly great; and works of this kind by the Emperor himself even are mentioned. Hence there is much in favour of the conjecture that Horace wrote his epistle to the Pisos, chiefly with the view of deterring these young men from so dangerous a career, being, in all probability, infected by the universal passion, without possessing the requisite talents. One of the most renowned tragic poets of this age was the famous Asinius Pollio, a man of a violently impassioned disposition, as Pliny informs us, and who was fond of whatever bore the same character in works of fine art. It was he who brought with him from Rhodes, and erected at Rome, the well-known group of the Farnese Bull. If his tragedies bore the same relation to those of Sophocles, which this bold, wild, but somewhat overwrought group does to the calm sublimity of the Niobe, we have every reason to regret their loss. But Pollio's political influence might easily blind his contemporaries to the true value of his poetical labours. Ovid, who tried so many departments of poetry, also attempted Tragedy, and was the author of a Medea. To judge from the wordy and commonplace displays of passion in his Heroides, we might expect from him, in Tragedy, at most, a caricature of Euripides. Quinctilian, however, asserts that he proved here, for once, what he might have done, had he chosen to restrain himself instead of yielding to his natural propensity to diffuseness.
This, and all the other tragic attempts of the Augustan age, have perished. We cannot estimate with certainty the magnitude of the loss which we have here suffered, but from all appearances it is not extraordinarily great.—First of all the Grecian Tragedy had in Rome to struggle with all the disadvantages of a plant removed to a foreign soil; the Roman religion was in some degree akin to that of the Greeks, (though by no means so completely identical with it as many people suppose,) but at all events the heroic mythology of Greece was first introduced into Rome by the poets, and was in no wise interwoven with the national recollections, as was the case in so many ways with those of Greece. The ideal of a genuine Roman Tragedy floats before me dimly indeed, and in the background of ages, and with all the indistinctness which must surround an entity, which never issued out of the womb of possibility into reality. It would be altogether different in form and significance from that of the Greeks, and, in the old Roman sense, religious and patriotic. All truly creative poetry must proceed from the inward life of a people, and from religion, the root of that life. The spirit of the Roman religion was however originally, and before the substance of it was sacrificed to foreign ornament, quite different from that of the Grecian. The latter was yielding and flexible to the hand of art, the former immutable beneath the rigorous jealousy of priestcraft. The Roman faith, and the customs founded on it, were more serious, more moral, and pious, displaying more insight into nature, and more magical and mysterious, than the Greek religion, at least than that part of it which was extrinsecal to the mysteries. As the Greek Tragedy represented the struggle of the free man with destiny, a true Roman Tragedy would exhibit the subjection of human motives to the holy and binding force of religion, and its visible presence in all earthly things. But this spirit had been long extinct, before the want of a cultivated poetry was first felt by them. The Patricians, originally an Etruscan sacerdotal school, had become mere secular statesmen and warriors, who regarded their hereditary priesthood in no other light than that of a political form. Their sacred books, their Vedas, were become unintelligible to them, not so much from obsoleteness of character, as because they no longer possessed the higher knowledge which was the key to that sanctuary. What the heroic tales of the Latins might have become under an earlier development, as well as their peculiar colouring, we may still see, from some traces in Virgil, Propertius, and Ovid, although even these poets did but handle them as matters of antiquity.
Moreover, desirous as the Romans were of becoming thorough Hellenists, they wanted for it that milder humanity which is so distinctly traceable in Grecian history, poetry, and art, even in the time of Homer. Prom the most austere virtue, which buried every personal inclination, as Curtius did his life, in the bosom of father-land, they passed with fearful rapidity to a state of corruption, by avarice and luxury, equally without example. Never in their character did they belie the legend that their first founder was suckled, not at the breast of woman, but of a ravening she-wolf. They were the tragedians of the world's history, who exhibited many a deep tragedy of kings led in chains and pining in dungeons; they were the iron necessity of all other nations; universal destroyers for the sake of raising at last, out of the ruins, the mausoleum of their own dignity and freedom, in the midst of the monotonous solitude of an obsequious world. To them, it was not given to excite emotion by the tempered accents of mental suffering, and to touch with a light and delicate hand every note in the scale of feeling. They naturally sought also in Tragedy, by overleaping all intervening gradations, to reach at once the extreme, whether in the stoicism of heroic fortitude, or in the monstrous fury of criminal desire. Of all their ancient greatness nothing remained to them but the contempt of pain and death whenever an extravagant enjoyment of life must finally be exchanged for them. This seal, therefore, of their former grandeur they accordingly impressed on their tragic heroes with a self-satisfied and ostentatious profusion.
Finally, even in the age of cultivated literature, the dramatic poets were still in want of a poetical public among a people fond, even to a degree of madness, of shows and spectacles. In the triumphal processions, the fights of gladiators, and of wild beasts, all the magnificence of the world, all the renders of every clime, were brought before the eye of the spectator, who was glutted with the most violent scenes of blood. On nerves so steeled what effect could the more refined gradations of tragic pathos produce? It was the ambition of the powerful to exhibit to the people in one day, on stages erected for the purpose, and immediately afterwards destroyed, the enormous spoils of foreign or civil war. The relation which Pliny gives of the architectural decoration of the stage erected by Scaurus, borders on the incredible. When magnificence could be carried no farther, they endeavoured to surprise by the novelty of mechanical contrivances. Thus, a Roman, at his father's funeral solemnity, caused two theatres to be constructed, with their backs resting against each other, and made moveable on a single pivot, so that at the end of the play they were wheeled round with all the spectators within them, and formed into one circus, in which gladiator combats were exhibited. In the gratification of the eye that of the ear was altogether lost; rope-dancers and white elephants were preferred to every kind of dramatic entertainment; the embroidered purple robe of the actor was applauded, as we are told by Horace, and so far was the great body of the spectators from being attentive and quiet, that he compares their noise to that of the roar of the ocean, or of a mountain forest in a storm.
Only one sample of the tragical talent of the Romans has come down to us, from which, however, it would be unjust to form a judgment of the productions of better times; I allude to the ten tragedies which pass under Seneca's name. Their claim to this title appears very doubtful; perhaps it is founded merely on a circumstance which would lead rather to a different conclusion; that, namely, in one of them, the Octavia, Seneca himself appears among the dramatic personages. The opinions of the learned are very much divided on the subject; some ascribe them partly to Seneca the philosopher, and partly to his father the rhetorician; others, again, assume the existence of a Seneca, a tragedian, a different person from both. It is generally allowed that the several pieces are neither all from the same hand, nor were of the same age. For the honour of the Roman taste, one would be disposed to consider them the productions of a very late period of antiquity: but Quinctilian quotes a verse from the Medea of Seneca, which is found in the play of that name in our collection, and therefore no doubt can be raised against the authenticity of this piece, though it seems to be in no way pre-eminent above the rest. [Footnote: The author of this Medea makes the heroine strangle her children before the eyes of the people, notwithstanding the admonition of Horace, who probably had some similar example of the Roman theatre before his eyes; for a Greek would hardly have committed this error The Roman tragedians must have had a particular rage for novelty and effect to seek them in such atrocities.] We find also in Lucan, a contemporary of Nero, a similar display of bombast, which distorts everything great into nonsense. The state of constant outrage in which Rome was kept by a series of blood-thirsty tyrants, gave an unnatural character even to eloquence and poetry. The same effect has been observed in similar periods of modern history. Under the wise and mild government of a Vespasian and a Titus, and more especially of a Trajan, the Romans returned to a purer taste. But whatever period may have given birth to the tragedies of Seneca, they are beyond description bombastic and frigid, unnatural both in character and action, revolting from their violation of propriety, and so destitute of theatrical effect, that I believe they were never meant to leave the rhetorical schools for the stage. With the old tragedies, those sublime creations of the poetical genius of the Greeks, these have nothing in common, but the name, the outward form, and the mythological materials; and yet they seem to have been composed with the obvious purpose of surpassing them; in which attempt they succeed as much as a hollow hyperbole would in competition with a most fervent truth. Every tragical common-place is worried out to the last gasp; all is phrase; and even the most common remark is forced and stilted. A total poverty of sentiment is dressed out with wit and acuteness. There is fancy in them, or at least a phantom of it; for they contain an example of the misapplication of every mental faculty. The authors have found out the secret of being diffuse, even to wearisomeness, and at the same time so epigrammatically laconic, as to be often obscure and unintelligible. Their characters are neither ideal nor real beings, but misshapen gigantic puppets, who are set in motion at one time by the string of an unnatural heroism, and at another by that of a passion equally unnatural, which no guilt nor enormity can appal.
In a history, therefore, of Dramatic Art, I should altogether have passed over the tragedies of Seneca, if, from a blind prejudice for everything which has come down to us from antiquity, they had not been often imitated in modern times. They were more early and more generally known than the Greek tragedies. Not only scholars, without a feeling for art, have judged favourably of them, nay, preferred them to the Greek tragedies, but even poets have accounted them worth studying. The influence of Seneca on Corneille's idea of tragedy cannot be mistaken; Racine too, in his Phaedra, has condescended to borrow a good deal from him, and among other things, nearly the whole scene of the declaration of love; as may be seen in Brumoy's enumeration.
The Italians—Pastoral Dramas of Tasso and Guarini—Small progress in Tragedy—Metastasio and Alfieri—Character of both—Comedies of Ariosto, Aretin, Porta—Improvisatore Masks—Goldoni—Gozzi—Latest state.
Leaving now the productions of Classical Antiquity, we proceed to the dramatic literature of the moderns. With respect to the order most convenient for treating our present subject, it may be doubtful whether it is better to consider, seriatim, what each nation has accomplished in this domain, or to pass continually from one to another, in the train of their reciprocal but fluctuating influences. Thus, for instance, the Italian theatre, at its first revival, exercised originally an influence on the French, to be, however, greatly influenced in its turn by the latter. So, too, the French, before their stage attained its full maturity, borrowed still more from the Spaniards than from the Italians; in later times, Voltaire attempted to enlarge their theatrical circle, on the model of the English; the attempt, however, was productive of no great effect, even because everything had already been immutably fixed, in conformity with their ideas of imitation of the ancients, and their taste in art. The English and Spanish stages are nearly independent of all the rest, and also of each other; on those of other countries, however, they have exercised a great influence, but experienced very little in return. But, to avoid the perplexity and confusion which would attend such a plan, it will be advisable to treat the several literatures separately, pointing out, at the same time, whatever effects foreign influence may have produced. This course is also rendered necessary, by the circumstance that among modern nations the principle of imitation of the ancients has in some prevailed, without check or modification; while in others, the romantic spirit predominated, or at least an originality altogether independent of classical models The former is the case with the Italians and French, and the latter with the English and Spaniards.
I have already indicated, in passing, how even before the eruption of the northern conquerors had put an end to everything like art, the diffusion of Christianity led to the abolition of plays, which, both with Greeks and Romans, had become extremely corrupt. After the long sleep of the dramatic and theatrical spirit in the middle ages, which, however uninfluenced by the classical models, began to awake again in the Mysteries and Moralities, the first attempt to imitate the ancients in the theatre, as well as in the other arts and departments of poetry, was made by the Italians. The Sophonisba of Trissino, which belongs to the beginning of the sixteenth century, is generally named as the first regular tragedy. This literary curiosity I cannot boast of having read, but from other sources I know the author to be a spiritless pedant. Those even of the learned, who are most zealous for the imitation of the ancients, pronounce it a dull laboured work, without a breath of true poetical spirit; we may therefore, without further examination, safely appeal to their judgment upon it. It is singular, that while all ancient forms, even the Chorus, are scrupulously retained, the province of mythology is abandoned for that of Roman history.
The pastoral dramas of Tasso and Guarini (which belong to the middle of the sixteenth century), whose subjects, though for the most part not tragical, are yet noble, not to say ideal, may be considered to form an epoch in the history of dramatic poetry. They are furnished with choruses of the most ravishing beauty, which, however, are but so many lyrical voices floating in the air; they do not appear as personages, and still less are they introduced with due regard to probability as constant witnesses of the represented actions. These compositions were, there is no doubt, designed for the theatre; and they were represented at Ferrara and at Turin with great pomp, and we may presume with eminent taste. This fact, however, serves to give us an idea of the infantine state of the theatre at that time; although, as a whole, they have each their plot and catastrophe, the action nevertheless stands still in some scenes. Their popularity, therefore, would lead us to conclude that the spectators, little accustomed to theatrical amusements, were consequently not difficult to please, and patiently followed the progress of a beautiful poem, even though deficient in dramatic development. The Pastor Fido, in particular, is an inimitable production; original and yet classical; romantic in the spirit of the love which it portrays; in its form impressed with the grand but simple stamp of classical antiquity; and uniting with the sweet triflings of poetry, the high and chaste beauty of feeling. No poet has succeeded so well as Guarini in combining the peculiarities of the modern and antique. He displays a profound feeling of the essence of Ancient Tragedy; for the idea of fate pervades the subject- matter, and the principal characters may be said to be ideal: he has also introduced caricatures, and on that account called the composition a Tragi-Comedy; but it is not from the vulgarity of their manners that they are caricatures, as from their over-lofty sentiments, just as in Ancient Tragedy the subordinate personages ever are invested with more or less of the general dignity.
The great importance of this work, however, belongs rather to the History of Poetry in general; on Dramatic Poetry it had no effect, as in truth it was not calculated to produce any.
I then return to what may properly be called the Tragedy of the Italians. After the Sophonisba, and a few pieces of the same period, which Calsabigi calls the first tragic lispings of Italy, a number of works of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries are cited; but of these none made, or at any rate maintained any considerable reputation. Although all these writers, in intention at least, laboured, to follow the rules of Aristotle, their tragical abortions are thus described by Calsabigi, a critic entirely devoted to the French system:—"Distorted, complicated, improbable plots, ill-understood scenic regulations, useless personages, double plots, inconsistent characters, gigantic or childish thoughts, feeble verses, affected phrases, the poetry neither harmonious nor natural; all this decked out with ill-timed descriptions and similes, or idle philosophical and political disquisitions; in every scene some silly amour, with all the trite insipidity of common-place sentimentality; of true tragic energy, of the struggle of conflicting passions, of overpowering theatrical catastrophes, not the slightest trace." Amongst the lumber of this forgotten literature we cannot stop to rummage, and we shall therefore proceed immediately to the consideration of the Merope of Maffei, which appeared in the beginning of the eighteenth century. Its success in Italy, on its first publication, was great; and in other countries, owing to the competition of Voltaire, it also obtained an extraordinary reputation. The object of both Maffei and Voltaire was, from Hyginus' account of its contents, to restore in some measure a lost piece of Euripides, which the ancients highly commended. Voltaire, pretending to eulogize, has given a rival's criticism of Maffei's Merope; there is also a lengthened criticism on it in the Dramaturgie of Lessing, as clever as it is impartial. He pronounces it, notwithstanding its purity and simplicity of taste, the work of a learned antiquary, rather than of a mind naturally adapted for, and practised in the dramatic art. We must therefore judge accordingly of the previous state of the drama in the country where such a work could arrive at so great an estimation.
After Maffei came Metastasio and Alfieri; the first before the middle, and the other in the latter half of the eighteenth century. I here include the musical dramas of Metastasio, because they aim in general at a serious and pathetic effect, because they lay claim to ideality of conception, and because in their external form there is a partial observance of what is considered as belonging to the regularity of a tragedy. Both these poets, though totally differing in their aim, were nevertheless influenced in common by the productions of the French stage. Both, it is true, declared themselves too decidedly against the authority of this school to be considered properly as belonging to it; they assure us that, in order to preserve their own originality, they purposely avoided reading the French models. But this very precaution appears somewhat suspicious: whoever feels himself perfectly firm and secure in his own independence, may without hesitation study the works of his predecessors; he will thus be able to derive from them many an improvement in his art, and yet stamp on his own productions a peculiar character. But there is nothing on this head that I can urge in support of these poets: if it be really true that they never, or at least not before the completion of their works, perused the works of French tragedians, some invisible influence must have diffused itself through the atmosphere, which, without their being conscious of it, determined them. This is at once conceivable from the great estimation which, since the time of Louis XIV, French Tragedy has enjoyed, not only with the learned, but also with the great world throughout Europe; from the new-modelling of several foreign theatres to the fashion of the French; from the prevailing spirit of criticism, with which negative correctness was everything, and in which France gave the tone to the literature of other countries. The affinity is in both undeniable, but, from the intermixture of the musical element in Metastasio, it is less striking than in Alfieri. I trace it in the total absence of the romantic spirit; in a certain fanciless insipidity of composition; in the manner of handling mythological and historical materials, which is neither properly mythological nor historical; lastly, in the aim to produce a tragic purity, which degenerates into monotony. The unities of both place and time have been uniformly observed by Alfieri; the latter only could be respected by Metastasio, as change of scene is necessary to the opera poet. Alfieri affords in general no food for the eyes. In his plots he aimed at the antique simplicity, while Metastasio, in his rich intrigues, followed Spanish models, and in particular borrowed largely from Calderon. [Footnote: This is expressly asserted by the learned Spaniard Arteaga, in his Italian work on the History of the Opera.] Yet the harmonious ideality of the ancients was as foreign to the one, as the other was destitute of the charm of the romantic poets, which arises from the indissoluble mixture of elements apparently incongruous.
Even before Metastasio, Apostolo Zeno had, as it is called, purified the opera, a phrase which, in the sense of modern critics, often means emptying a thing of all its substance and vigour. He formed it on the model of Tragedy, and more especially of French Tragedy; and a too faithful, or rather too slavish approximation to this model, is the very cause why he left so little room for musical development, on which account his pieces were immediately driven from the stage of the opera by those of his more expert successor. It is in general an artistic mistake for one species to attempt, at evident disadvantage, that which another more perfectly accomplishes, and in the attempt, to sacrifice its own peculiar excellencies. It originates in a chilling idea of regularity, once for all established for every kind alike, instead of ascertaining the spirit and peculiar laws of each distinct species.
Metastasio quickly threw Zeno into the shade, since, with the same object in view, he displayed greater flexibility in accommodating himself to the requisitions of the musician. The merits which have gained for him the reputation of a classic among the Italians of the present day, and which, in some degree, have made him with them what Racine is with the French, are generally the perfect purity, clearness, elegance, and sweetness of his language, and, in particular, the soft melody and the extreme loveliness of his songs. Perhaps no poet ever possessed in a greater degree the talent of briefly bringing together all the essential features of a pathetic situation; the songs with which the characters make their exit, are almost always the purest concentrated musical extract of their state of mind. But, at the same time, we must own that all his delineations of passion are general: his pathos is purified, not only from all characteristic, as well as from all contemplative matter; and, consequently, the poetic representation, unencumbered thereby, proceeds with a light and easy motion, leaving to the musician the care of a richer and fuller development. Metastasio is musical throughout; but, to follow up the simile, we may observe, that of poetical music, melody is the only part that he possesses, being deficient in harmonious compass, and in the mysterious effects of counterpoint. Or, to express myself in different terms, he is musical, but in no respect picturesque. His melodies are light and pleasant, but they are constantly repeated with little or no variation: when we have read a few of his pieces, we know them all; and the composition as a whole is always without significance. His heroes, like those of Corneille, are gallant; his heroines tender, like those of Racine; but this has been too severely censured by many, without a due consideration of the requirements of the Opera. To me he appears censurable only for the selection of subjects, whose very seriousness could not without great incongruity be united with such triflings. Had Metastasio not adopted great historical names—had he borrowed his subject-matter more frequently from mythology, or from still more fanciful fictions—had he made always the same happy choice as that in his Achilles in Scyros, where, from the nature of the story, the Heroic is interwoven with the Idyllic, we might then have pardoned him if he invariably depicts his personages as in love. Then should we, if only we ourselves understood what ought to be expected from an opera, willingly have permitted him to indulge in feats of fancy still more venturesome. By his tragical pretensions he has injured himself: his powers were inadequate to support them, and the seductive movingness at which he aimed was irreconcileable with overpowering energy. I have heard a celebrated Italian poet assert that his countrymen were moved to tears by Metastasio. We cannot get over such a national testimony as this, except by throwing it back on the nation itself as a symptom of its own moral temperament. It appears to me undeniable, that a certain melting softness in the sentiments, and the expression of them, rendered Metastasio the delight of his contemporaries. He has lines which, from their dignity and vigorous compression, are perfectly suited to Tragedy, and yet we perceive in them an indescribable something, which seems to show that they were designed for the flexible throat of a soprano singer.
The astonishing success of Metastasio throughout all Europe, and especially at courts, must also in a great measure be attributed to his being a court poet, not merely by profession, but also by the style in which he composed, and which was in every respect that of the tragedians of the era of Louis XIV. A brilliant surface without depth; prosaic sentiments and thoughts decked out with a choice poetical language; a courtly moderation throughout, whether in the display of passion, or in the exhibition of misfortune and crime; observance of the proprieties, and an apparent morality, for in these dramas voluptuousness is but breathed, never named, and the heart is always in every mouth; all these properties could not fail to recommend such tragical miniatures to the world of fashion. There is an unsparing pomp of noble sentiments, but withal most strangely associated with atrocious baseness. Not unfrequently does an injured fair one dispatch a despised lover to stab the faithless one from behind. In almost every piece there is a crafty knave who plays the traitor, for whom, however, there is ready prepared some royal magnanimity, to make all right at the last. The facility with which base treachery is thus taken into favour, as if it were nothing more than an amiable weakness, would have been extremely revolting, if there had been anything serious in this array of tragical incidents. But the poisoned cup is always seasonably dashed from the lips; the dagger either drops, or is forced from the murderous hand, before the deadly blow can be struck; or if injury is inflicted, it is never more than a slight scratch; and some subterranean exit is always at hand to furnish the means of flight from the dungeon or other imminent peril. The dread of ridicule, that conscience of all poets who write for the world of fashion, is very visible in the care with which he avoids all bolder flights as yet unsanctioned by precedent, and abstains from everything supernatural, because such a public carries not with it, even to the fantastic stage of the opera, a belief in wonders. Yet this fear has not always served as a sure guide to Metastasio: besides such an extravagant use of the "aside," as often to appear ludicrous, the subordinate love-stories frequently assume the appearance of being a parody on the others. Here the Abb, thoroughly acquainted with the various gradations of Cicisbeism, its pains and its pleasures, at once betrays himself. To the favoured lover there is generally opposed an importunate one, who presses his suit without return, the soffione among the cicisbei; the former loves in silence, and frequently finds no opportunity till the end of the piece, of offering his little word of declaration; we might call him the patito. This unintermitting love-chase is not confined to the male parts, but extended also to the female, that everywhere the most varied and brilliant contrasts may offer themselves.
A few only of the operas of Metastasio still keep possession of the stage, owing to the change of musical taste, which demands a different arrangement of the text. Metastasio seldom has choruses, and his airs are almost always for a single voice: with these the scenes uniformly close, and with them the singer never fails to make his exit. It appears as if, proud of having played off this highest triumph of feeling, he left the spectators to their astonishment at witnessing the chirping of the passions in the recitatives rising at last in the air, to the fuller nightingale tones. At present we require in an opera more frequent duos and trios, and a crashing finale. In fact, the most difficult problem for the opera poet is to reduce the mingled voices of conflicting passions in one pervading harmony, without destroying any one of them: a problem, however, which is generally solved by both poet and musician in a very arbitrary manner.
Alfieri, a hold and proud man, disdained to please by such meretricious means as those of which Metastasio had availed himself: he was highly indignant at the lax immorality of his countrymen, and the degeneracy of his contemporaries in general. This indignation stimulated him to the exhibition of a manly strength of mind, of stoical principles and free opinions, and on the other hand, led him to depict the horrors and enormities of despotism. This enthusiasm, however, was by far more political and moral than poetical, and we must praise his tragedies rather as the actions of the man than as the works of the poet. From his great disinclination to pursue the same path with Metastasio, he naturally fell into the opposite extreme: I might not unaptly call him a Metastasio reversed. If the muse of the latter he a love-sick nymph, Alfieri's muse is an Amazon. He gave her a Spartan education; he aimed at being the Cato of the theatre; but he forgot that, though the tragic poet may himself he a stoic, tragic poetry itself, if it would move and agitate us, must never be stoical. His language is so barren of imagery, that his characters seem altogether devoid of fancy; it is broken and harsh: he wished to steel it anew, and in the process it not only lost its splendour, but became brittle and inflexible. Not only is he not musical, but positively anti- musical; he tortures our feelings by the harshest dissonances, without any softening or solution. Tragedy is intended by its elevating sentiments in some degree to emancipate our minds from the sensual despotism of the body; but really to do this, it must not attempt to strip this dangerous gift of heaven of its charms: but rather it must point out to us the sublime majesty of our existence, though surrounded on all sides by dangerous abysses. When we read the tragedies of Alfieri, the world looms upon us dark and repulsive. A style of composition which exhibits the ordinary course of human affairs in a gloomy and troublous light, and whose extraordinary catastrophes are horrible, resembles a climate where the perpetual fogs of a northern winter should be joined with the fiery tempests of the torrid zone. Profound and delicate delineation of character is as little to be looked for in Alfieri as in Metastasio: he does but exhibit the opposite but equally partial view of human nature. His characters also are cast in the mould of naked general notions, and he frequently paints the extremes of black and white, side by side, and in unrelieved contrast. His villains for the most part betray all their deformity, in their outward conduct; this might, perhaps, be allowed to pass, although indeed such a picture will hardly enable us to recognise them in real life; but his virtuous persons are not amiable, and this is a defect open to much graver censure. Of all seductive graces, and even of all subordinate charms and ornaments, (as if the degree in which nature herself had denied them to this caustic genius had not been sufficient,) he studiously divested himself, because as he thought it would best advance his more earnest moral aim, forgetting, however, that the poet has no other means of swaying the minds of men than the fascinations of his art.
From the tragedy of the Greeks, with which he did not become acquainted until the end of his career, he was separated by a wide chasm; and I cannot consider his pieces as an improvement on the French tragedy. Their structure is more simple, the dialogue in some cases less conventional; he has also got rid of confidants, and this has been highly extolled as a difficulty overcome, and an improvement on the French system; he had the same aversion to chamberlains and court ladies in poetry as in real life. But in captivating and brilliant eloquence, his pieces bear no comparison with the better French tragedies; they also display much less skill in the plot, its gradual march, preparations, and transitions. Compare, for instance, the Britannicus of Racine with the Octavia of Alfieri. Both drew their materials from Tacitus: but which of them has shown the more perfect understanding 01 this profound master of the human heart? Racine appears here before us as a man who was thoroughly acquainted with all the corruptions of a court, and had beheld ancient Rome under the Emperors, reflected in this mirror of observation. On the other hand, if Alfieri did not expressly assure us that his Octavia was a daughter of Tacitus, we should be inclined to believe that it was modelled on that of the pretended Seneca. The colours with which he paints his tyrants are borrowed from the rhetorical exercises of the school. Who can recognise, in his blustering and raging Nero, the man who, as Tacitus says, seemed formed by nature "to veil hatred with caresses?"—the cowardly Sybarite, fantastically vain till the very last moment of his existence, cruel at first, from fear, and afterwards from inordinate lust.
If Alfieri has, in this case, been untrue to Tacitus, in the Conspiracy of the Pazzi he has equally failed in his attempt to translate Macchiavel into the language of poetry. In this and other pieces from modern history, the Filippo for instance, and the Don Garcia, he has by no means hit the spirit and tone of modern times, nor even of his own nation: his ideas of the tragic style were opposed to the observance of everything like a local and determinate costume. On the other hand it is astonishing to observe the subjects which he has borrowed from the tragic cycles of the Greeks, such as the Orestiad, for instance, losing under his hands all their heroic magnificence, and assuming a modern, not to say a vulgar air. He has succeeded best in painting the public life of the Roman republic; and it is a great merit in the Virginia that the action takes place in the forum, and in part before the eyes of the people. In other pieces, while the Unity of Place is strictly observed, the scene chosen is for the most part so invisible and indeterminate, that one would fain imagine it is some out-of-the-way corner, where nobody comes but persons involved in painful and disagreeable transactions. Again, the stripping his kings and heroes, for the sake of simplicity, of all their external retinue, produces the impression that the world is actually depopulated around them. This stage-solitude is very striking in Saul, where the scene is laid before two armies in battle-array, on the point of a decisive engagement. And yet, in other respects this piece is favourably distinguished from the rest, by a certain Oriental splendour, and the lyrical sublimity in which the troubled mind of Saul gives utterance to itself. Myrrha is a perilous attempt to treat with propriety a subject equally revolting to the senses and the feelings. The Spaniard Arteaga has criticised this tragedy and the Filippo with great severity but with great truth.
I reserve for my notice of the present condition of the Italian theatre all that I have to remark on the successors of Alfieri, and go back in order of time in order to give a short sketch of the history of Comedy.
In this department the Italians began with an imitation of the ancients, which was not sufficiently attentive to the difference of times and manners, and translations of Plautus and Terence were usually represented in their earliest theatres; they soon fell, however, into the most singular extravagancies. We have comedies of Ariosto and Macchiavelli— those of the former are in rhymeless verse, versi sdruccioli, and those of the latter in prose. Such men could produce nothing which did not bear traces of their genius. But Ariosto in the structure of his pieces kept too close to the stories of the ancients, and, therefore, did not exhibit any true living picture of the manners of his own times. In Macchiavelli this is only the case in his Clitia, an imitation of Plautus; the Mandragola, and another comedy, which is without a name, are sufficiently Florentine; but, unfortunately, they are not of a very edifying description. A simple deceived husband, and a hypocritical and pandering monk, form the principal parts. Tales, in the style of the free and merry tales of Boccacio, are boldly and bluntly, I cannot say, dramatised: for with respect to theatrical effect they are altogether inartificial, but given in the form of dialogue. As Mimes, that is, as pictures of the language of ordinary life with all its idioms, these productions are much to be commended. In one point they resemble the Latin comic poets; they are not deficient in indecency. This was, indeed, their general tone. The comedies of Pietro Aretino are merely remarkable for their shameless immodesty. It almost seems as if these writers, deeming the spirit of refined love inconsistent with the essence of Comedy, had exhausted the very lees of the sensual amours of Greek Comedy.
At a still earlier period, in the beginning, namely, of the sixteenth century, an unsuccessful attempt had been made in the Virginia of Accolti to dramatise a serious novel, as a middle species between Comedy and Tragedy, and to adorn it with poetical splendour. Its subject is the same story on which Shakspeare's All's Well that Ends Well, is founded. I have never had an opportunity of reading it, but the unfavourable report of a literary man disposes me to think favourably of it. [Footnote: Bouterwek's Geschichte der Poesie und Beredsamkeit.—Ersten Band, s. 334, &c.] According to his description, it resembles the older pieces of the Spanish stage before it had attained to maturity of form, and in common with them it employs the stanza for its metre. The attempts at romantic drama have always failed in Italy; whereas in Spain, on the contrary, all endeavours to model the theatre according to the rules of the ancients, and latterly of the French, have from the difference of national taste uniformly been abortive.
We have a comedy of Tasso's, Gli Intrichi d'Amore, which ought rather to be called a lengthy romance in the form of dialogue. So many and such wonderful events are crowded together within the narrow limit of five acts, that one incident treads closely upon the heels of another, without being in the least accounted for by human motives, so as to give to the whole an insupportable hardness. Criminal designs are portrayed with indifference, and the merriment is made to consist in the manner in which some accident or other invariably frustrates their consequences. We cannot here recognise the Tasso whose nice sense of love, chivalry, and honour speaks so delightfully in the Jerusalem Delivered, and on this ground it has even been doubted whether this work be really his. The richness of invention, if we may give this name to a rude accumulation of incidents, is so great, that the attention is painfully tortured in the endeavour to keep clear and disentangled the many and diversely crossing threads.
We have of this date a multitude of Italian comedies on a similar plan, only with less order and connexion, and whoso aim apparently is to delight by means of indecency. A parasite and procuress are standing characters in all. Among the comic poets of this class, Giambatista Porta deserves to be distinguished. His plots, it is true, are like the rest, imitations of Plautus and Terence, or dramatised tales; but, throughout the love- dialogues, on which he seems to have laboured with peculiar fondness, there breathes a tender feeling which rises even from the midst of the rudeness of the old Italian Comedy, and its generally uncongenial materials.
In the seventeenth century, when the Spanish theatre flourished in all its glory, the Italians seem to have borrowed frequently from it; but not without misemploying and disfiguring whatever they so acquired. The neglect of the regular stage increased with the all-absorbing passion for the opera, and with the growing taste of the multitude for improvisatory farces with standing masks. The latter are not in themselves to be despised: they serve to fix, as it were, so many central points of the national character in the comic exhibition, by the external peculiarities of speech, dress, &c. Their constant recurrence does not by any means preclude the greatest possible diversity in the plot of the pieces, even as in chess, with a small number of men, of which each has his fixed movement, an endless number of combinations is possible. But as to extemporary playing, it no doubt readily degenerates into insipidity; and this may have been the case even in Italy, notwithstanding the great fund of drollery and fantastic wit, and a peculiar felicity in farcical gesticulation, which the Italians possess.
About the middle of the last century, Goldoni appeared as the reformer of Italian Comedy, and his success was so great, that he remained almost exclusively in possession of the comic stage. He is certainly not deficient in theatrical skill; but, as the event has proved, he is wanting in that solidity, that depth of characterization, that novelty and richness of invention, which are necessary to ensure a lasting reputation. His pictures of manners are true, but not sufficiently elevated above the range of every-day life; he has exhausted the surface of life; and as there is little progression in his dramas, and every thing turns usually on the same point, this adds to the impression of shallowness and ennui, as characteristic of the existing state of society. Willingly would he have abolished masks altogether, but he could hardly have compensated for them out of his own resources; however, he retained only a few of them, as Harlequin, Brighella, and Pantaloon, and limited their parts. And yet he fell again into a great uniformity of character, which, indeed, he partly confesses in his repeated use of the same names: for instance, his Beatrice is always a lively, and his Rosaura a feeling young maiden; and as for any farther distinction, it is not to be found in him.
The excessive admiration of Goldoni, and the injury sustained thereby by the masked comedy, for which the company of Sacchi in Venice possessed the highest talents, gave rise to the dramas of Gozzi. They are fairy tales in a dramatic form, in which, however, along side of the wonderful, versified, and more serious part, he employed the whole of the masks, and allowed them full and unrestrained development of their peculiarities. They, if ever any were, are pieces for effect, of great boldness of plot, still more fantastic than romantic; even though Gozzi was the first among the comic poets of Italy to show any true feeling for honour and love. The execution does not betoken either care or skill, but is sketchily dashed off. With all his whimsical boldness he is still quite a popular writer; the principal motives are detailed with the most unambiguous perspicuity, all the touches are coarse and vigorous: he says, he knows well that his countrymen are fond of robust situations. After his imagination had revelled to satiety among Oriental tales, he took to re-modelling Spanish plays, and particularly those of Calderon; but here he is, in my opinion, less deserving of praise. By him the ethereal and delicately-tinted poetry of the Spaniard is uniformly vulgarised, and deepened with the most glaring colours; while the weight of his masks draws the aerial tissue to the ground, for the humorous introduction of the gracioso in the Spanish is of far finer texture. On the other hand, the wonderful extravagance of the masked parts serves as an admirable contrast to the wild marvels of fairy tale. Thus the character of these pieces was, in the serious part, as well as in the accompanying drollery, equally removed from natural truth. Here Gozzi had fallen almost accidentally on a fund of whose value he was not, perhaps, fully aware: his prosaical, and for the most part improvisatory, masks, forming altogether of themselves the irony on the poetical part. What I here mean by irony, I shall explain more fully when I come to the justification of the mixture of the tragic and comic in the romantic drama of Shakspeare and Calderon. At present I shall only observe, that it is a sort of confession interwoven into the representation itself, and more or less distinctly expressed, of its overcharged one-sidedness in matters of fancy and feeling, and by means of which the equipoise is again restored. The Italians were not, however, conscious of this, and Gozzi did not find any followers to carry his rude sketches to a higher degree of perfection. Instead of combining like him, only with greater refinement, the charms of wonderful poetry with exhilarating mirth; instead of comparing Gozzi with the foreign masters of the romantic drama, whom he resembles notwithstanding his great disparity, and from the unconscious affinity between them in spirit and plan, drawing the conclusion that the principle common to both was founded in nature; the Italians contented themselves with considering the pieces of Gozzi as the wild offspring of an extravagant imagination, and with banishing them from the stage. The comedy with masks is held in contempt by all who pretend to any degree of refinement, as if they were too wise for it, and is abandoned to the vulgar, in the Sunday representations at the theatres and in the puppet-shows. Although this contempt must have had an injurious influence on the masks, preventing, as it does, any actor of talent from devoting himself to them, so that there are no examples now of the spirit and wit with which they were formerly filled up, still the Commedia dell' Arte is the only one in Italy where we can meet with original and truly theatrical entertainment. [Footnote: A few years ago, I saw in Milan an excellent Truffaldin or Harlequin, and here and there in obscure theatres, and even in puppet-shows, admirable representations of the old traditional jokes of the country. [Unfortunately, on my last visit to Milan, my friend was no longer to be met with. Under the French rule, Harlequin's merry occupation had been proscribed in the Great Theatres, from a care, it was alleged, for the dignity of man. The Puppet-theatre of Gerolamo still flourishes, however but a stranger finds it difficult to follow the jokes of the Piedmontese and Milan Masks.—LAST EDITION.]]
In Tragedy the Italians generally imitate Alfieri, who, although it is the prevailing fashion to admire him, is too bold and manly a thinker to be tolerated on the stage. They have produced some single pieces of merit, but the principles of tragic art which Alfieri followed are altogether false, and in the bawling and heartless declamation of their actors, this tragic poetry, stripped with stoical severity of all the charms of grouping, of musical harmony, and of every tender emotion, is represented with the most deadening uniformity and monotony. As all the rich rewards are reserved for the singers, it is only natural that their players, who are only introduced as a sort of stop-gaps between singing and dancing, should, for the most part, not even possess the very elements of their art, viz., pure pronunciation, and practised memory. They seem to have no idea that their parts can be got by heart, and hence, in an Italian theatre, we hear every piece as it were twice over; the prompter speaking as loud as a good player elsewhere, and the actors in order to be distinguished from him bawling most insufferably. It is exceedingly amusing to see the prompter, when, from the general forgetfulness, a scene threatens to fall into confusion, labouring away, and stretching out his head like a serpent from his hole, hurrying through the dialogue before the different speakers. Of all the actors in the world, I conceive those of Paris to have their parts best by heart; in this, as well as in the knowledge of versification, the Germans are far inferior to them.
One of their living poets, Giovanni Pindemonti, has endeavoured to introduce greater extent, variety, and nature into his historical plays, but he has been severely handled by their critics for descending from the height of the cothurnus to attain that truth of circumstance without which it is impossible for this species of drama to exist; perhaps also for deviating from the strict observation of the traditional rules, so blindly worshipped by them. If the Italian verse be in fact so fastidious as not to consort with many historical peculiarities, modern names and titles for instance, let them write partly in prose, and call the production not a tragedy, but an historical drama. It seems in general to be assumed as an undoubted principle, that the verso sciolto, or rhymeless line, of eleven syllables, is alone fit for the drama, but this does not seem to me to be by any means proved. This verse, in variety and metrical signification, is greatly inferior to the English and German rhymeless iambic, from its uniform feminine termination, and from there being merely an accentuation in Italian, without any syllabic measure. Moreover, from the frequent transition of the sense from verse to verse, according to every possible division, the lines flow into one another without its being possible for the ear to separate them. Alfieri imagined that he had found out the genuine dramatic manner of treating this verse correspondent to the form of his own dialogue, which consists of simply detached periods, or rather of propositions entirely unperiodical and abruptly terminated. It is possible that he carried into his works a personal peculiarity, for he is said to have been extremely laconic; he was also, as he himself relates, influenced by the example of Seneca: but how different a lesson might he have learned from the Greeks! We do not, it is true, in conversation, connect our language so closely as in an oratorical harangue, but the opposite extreme is equally unnatural. Even in our common discourses, we observe a certain continuity, we give a development both to arguments and objections, and in an instant passion will animate us to fulness of expression, to a flow of eloquence, and even to lyrical sublimity. The ideal dialogue of Tragedy may therefore find in actual conversation all the various tones and turns of poetry, with the exception of epic repose. The metre therefore of Metastasio, and before him, of Tasso and Guarini, in their pastoral dramas, seems to me much more agreeable and suitable than the monotonous verse of eleven syllables: they intermingle with it verses of seven syllables, and occasionally, after a number of blank lines, introduce a pair of rhymes, and even insert a rhyme in the middle of a verse. From this the transition to more measured strophes, either in ottave rime, or in direct lyrical metres, would be easy. Rhyme, and the connexion which it forms, have nothing in them inconsistent with the essence of dramatic dialogue, and the objection to change of measure in the drama rests merely on a chilling idea of regularity.
No suitable versification for Comedy has yet been invented in Italy. The verso sciolto, it is well known, does not answer; it is not sufficiently familiar. The verse of twelve syllables, with a sdrucciolo termination selected by Ariosto, is much better, resembling the trimeter of the ancients, but is still somewhat monotonous. It has been, however, but little cultivated. The Martellian verse, a bad imitation of the Alexandrine, is a downright torture to the ear. Chiari, and occasionally Goldoni, came at last to use it, and Gozzi by way of derision. It still remains therefore to the prejudice of a more elegant style of prose.
Of Comedy, the modern Italians have nothing worth the name. What they have, are nothing but pictures of manners still more dull and superficial than those of Goldoni, without drollery, or invention, and from their every-day commonplace, downright disagreeable. They have, on the other hand, acquired a true relish for the sentimental drama and familiar tragedy; they frequent with great partiality the representation of popular German pieces of this description, and even produce the strangest and oddest imitations of them. Long accustomed to operas and ballets, as their favourite entertainments, wherein nothing is ever attempted beyond a beautiful air or an elegant movement, the public seems altogether to have lost all sense of dramatic connexion: they are perfectly satisfied with seeing the same evening two acts from different operas, or even the last act of an opera before the first.
We believe, therefore, that we are not going too far if we affirm, that both dramatic poetry and the histrionic art are in a lamentable state of decline in Italy, that not even the first foundations of a true national theatre have yet been laid, and that there is no prospect of it, till the prevailing ideas on the subject shall have undergone a total change.
Calsabigi attributes the cause of this state to the want of permanent companies of players, and of a capital. In this last reason there is certainly some foundation: in England, Spain, and France, a national system of dramatic art has been developed and established; in Italy and Germany, where there are only capitals of separate states, but no general metropolis, great difficulties are opposed to the improvement of the theatre. Calsabigi could not adduce the obstacles arising from a false theory, for he was himself under their influence.
Antiquities of the French Stage—Influence of Aristotle and the Imitation of the Ancients—Investigation of the Three Unities—What is Unity of Action?—Unity of Time—Was it observed by the Greeks?—Unity of Place as connected with it.
We now proceed to the Dramatic Literature of France. We have no intention of dwelling at length on the first beginnings of Tragedy in this country, and therefore leave to French critics the task of depreciating the antiquities of their own literature, which, with the mere view of adding to the glory of the later age of Richelieu and Louis XIV., they so zealously enter upon. Their language, it is true, was at this time first cultivated, from an indescribable waste of tastelessness and barbarity, while the harmonious diction of the Italian and Spanish poetry, which had long before spontaneously developed itself in the most beautiful luxuriance, was rapidly degenerating. Hence we are not to be astonished if the French lay such great stress on negative excellences, and so carefully endeavour to avoid everything like impropriety, and that from dread of relapse into rudeness this has ever since been the general object of their critical labours. When La Harpe says of the tragedies of Corneille, that "their tone rises above flatness, only to fall into the opposite extreme of affectation," judging from the proofs which he adduces, we see no reason to differ from him. The publication recently of Legouv's Death of Henry the Fourth, has led to the reprinting of a contemporary piece on the same subject, which is not only written in a ludicrous style, but in the general plan and distribution of the subject, with its prologue spoken by Satan, and its chorus of pages, with its endless monologues and want of progress and action, betrays the infancy of the dramatic art; not a nave infancy, full of hope and promise, but one disfigured by the most pedantic bombast and absurdity. For a character of the earlier tragical attempts of the French in the last half of the sixteenth and the first thirty or forty years of the seventeenth century, we refer to Fontenelle, La Harpe, and the Mlanges Littraires of Suard and Andr. We shall confine ourselves to the characteristics of three of their most celebrated tragic poets, Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire, who, it would seem, have given an immutable shape to their tragic stage. Our chief object, however, is an examination of the system of tragic art practically followed by these poets, and by them, in part, but by the French critics universally, considered as alone entitled to any authority, and every deviation from it viewed as an offence against good taste. If only the system be in itself the right one, we shall be compelled to allow that its execution is masterly, perhaps not to be surpassed. But the great question here is: how far the French tragedy is in spirit and inward essence related to the Greek, and whether it deserves to be considered as an improvement upon it?
Of the earlier attempts it is only necessary for us to observe, that the endeavour to imitate the ancients showed itself from the very earliest period in France. Moreover, they considered it the surest method of succeeding in this endeavour to observe the outward regularity of form, of which their notion was derived from Aristotle, and especially from Seneca, rather than from any intimate acquaintance with the Greek models themselves. In the first tragedies that were represented, the Cleopatra, and Dido of Jodelle, a prologue and chorus were introduced; Jean de la Peruse translated the Medea of Seneca; and Garnier's pieces are all taken from the Greek tragedies or from Seneca, but in the execution they bear a much closer resemblance to the latter. The writers of that day, moreover, modelled themselves diligently on the Sophonisbe of Trissino, in good confidence of its classic form. Whoever is acquainted with the procedure of true genius, how it is impelled by an almost unconscious and immediate contemplation of great and important truths, and in no wise by convictions obtained mediately, and by circuitous deductions, will be on that ground alone extremely suspicious of all activity in art which originates in an abstract theory. But Corneille did not, like an antiquary, execute his dramas as so many learned school exercises, on the model of the ancients. Seneca, it is true, led him astray, but he knew and loved the Spanish theatre, and it had a great influence on his mind. The first of his pieces, with which, according to general admission, the classical aera of French tragedy commences, and which is certainly one of his best, the Cid, is well known to have been borrowed from the Spanish. It violates in a great degree the unity of place, if not also that of time, and it is animated throughout by the spirit of chivalrous love and honour. But the opinion of his contemporaries, that a tragedy must be framed in strict accordance with the rules of Aristotle, was so universally predominant, that it bore down all opposition. Almost at the close of his dramatic career, Corneille began to entertain scruples of conscience, and in a separate treatise endeavoured to prove that, although in the composition of his pieces he had never even thought of Aristotle, they were yet all accurately written according to his rules. This was no easy task, and he was obliged to have recourse to all manner of forced explanations. If he had been able to establish his case satisfactorily, it would but lead to the inference that the rules of Aristotle must be very loose and indeterminate, if works so dissimilar in spirit and form, as the tragedies of the Greeks and those of Corneille are yet equally true to them.
It is quite otherwise with Racine: of all the French poets he was, without doubt, the one who was best acquainted with the ancients; and not merely did he study them as a scholar, he felt them also as a poet. He found, however, the practice of the theatre already firmly established, and he did not, for the sake of approaching these models, undertake to deviate from it. He contented himself, therefore, with appropriating the separate beauties of the Greek poets; but, whether from deference to the taste of his age, or from inclination, he remained faithful to the prevailing gallantry so alien to the spirit of Greek tragedy, and, for the most part, made it the foundation of the complication of his plots.
Such, nearly, was the state of the French theatre before the appearance of Voltaire. His knowledge of the Greeks was very limited, although he now and then spoke of them with enthusiasm, in order, on other occasions, to rank them below the more modern masters of his own nation, including himself still, he always felt himself bound to preach up the grand severity and simplicity of the Greeks as essential to Tragedy. He censured the deviations of his predecessors therefrom as mistakes, and insisted on purifying and at the same time enlarging the stage, as, in his opinion, from the constraint of court manners, it had been almost straitened to the dimensions of an antechamber. He at first spoke of Shakspeare's bursts of genius, and borrowed many things from this poet, at that time altogether unknown to his countrymen; he insisted, too, on greater depth in the delineation of passion—on a stronger theatrical effect; he called for a scene more majestically ornamented; and, lastly, he frequently endeavoured to give to his pieces a political or philosophical interest altogether foreign to poetry. His labours hare unquestionably been of utility to the French stage, although in language and versification (which in the classification of dramatic excellences ought only to hold a secondary place, though in France they alone almost decide the fate of a piece), he is, by most critics, considered inferior to his predecessors, or at least to Racine. It is now the fashion to attack this idol of a bygone generation on every point, and with the most unrelenting and partial hostility. His innovations on the stage are therefore cried down as so many literary heresies, even by watchmen of the critical Zion, who seem to think that the age of Louis XIV. has left nothing for all succeeding time, to the end of the world, but a passive admiration of its perfections, without a presumptuous thought of making improvements of its own. For authority is avowed with so little disguise as the first principle of the French critics, that this expression of literary heresy is quite current with them.
In so far as we have to raise a doubt of the unconditional authority of the rules followed by the old French tragic authors, of the pretended affinity between the spirit of their works and the spirit of the Greek tragedians, and of the indispensableness of many supposed proprieties, we find an ally in Voltaire. But in many other points he has, without examination, nay even unconsciously, adopted the maxims of his predecessors, and followed their practice. He is alike implicated with them in many opinions, which are perhaps founded more on national peculiarities than on human nature and the essence of tragic poetry in general. On this account we may include him in a common examination with them; for we are here concerned not with the execution of particular parts, but with the general principles of tragic art which reveal themselves in the shape of the works.
The consideration of the dramatic regularity for which these critics contend brings us back to the so-called Three Unities of Aristotle. We shall therefore examine the doctrine delivered by the Greek philosopher on this subject: how far the Greek tragedians knew or observed these rules; whether the French poets have in reality overcome the difficulty of observing them without the sacrifice of freedom and probability, or merely dexterously avoided it; and finally, whether the merit of this observance is actually so great and essential as it has been deemed, and does not rather entail the sacrifice of still more essential beauties.
There is, however, another aspect of French Tragedy from which it cannot appeal to the authority of the ancients: this is, the tying of poetry to a number of merely conventional proprieties. On this subject the French are far less clear than on that of the rules; for nations are not usually more capable of knowing and appreciating themselves than individuals are. It is, however, intimately connected with the spirit of French poetry in general, nay, rather of their whole literature and the very language itself. All this, in France, has been formed under the guardianship of society, and, in its progressive development, has uniformly been guided and determined by it—the guardianship of a society which zealously imitated the tone of the capital, which again took its direction from the reigning modes of a brilliant court. If, as there is indeed no difficulty in proving, such be really the case, we may easily conceive why French literature, of and since the age of Louis XIV., has been, and still is, so well received in the upper ranks of society and the fashionable world throughout Europe, whereas the body of the people, everywhere true to their own customs and manners, have never shown anything like a cordial liking for it. In this way, even in foreign countries, it again in some measure finds the place of its birth.
The far-famed Three Unities, which have given rise to a whole Iliad of critical wars, are the Unities of Action, Time, and Place.
The validity of the first is universally allowed, but the difficulty is to agree about its true meaning; and, I may add, that it is no easy matter to come to an understanding on the subject.
The Unities of Time and of Place are considered by some quite a subordinate matter, while others lay the greatest stress upon them, and affirm that out of the pale of them there is no safety for the dramatic poet. In France this zeal is not confined merely to the learned world, but seems to be shared by the whole nation in common. Every Frenchman who has sucked in his Boileau with his mother's milk, considers himself a born champion of the Dramatic Unities, much in the same way that the kings of England since Henry VIII. are hereditary Defenders of the Faith.
It is amusing enough to see Aristotle driven perforce to lend his name to these three Unities, whereas the only one of which he speaks with any degree of fulness is the first, the Unity of Action. With respect to the Unity of Time he merely throws out a vague hint; while of the Unity of Place he says not a syllable.
I do not, therefore, find myself in a polemical relation to Aristotle, for I by no means contest the Unity of Action properly understood: I only claim a greater latitude with respect to place and time for many species of the drama, nay, hold it essential to them. In order, however, that we may view the matter in its true light, I must first say a few words on the Poetics of Aristotle, those few pages which have given rise to such voluminous commentaries.
It is well established that this treatise is merely a fragment, for it does not even touch upon many important matters. Several scholars have even been of opinion, that it is not a fragment of the true original, but of an abridgment which some one had made for his own improvement. On one point all philological critics are unanimous: namely, that the text is very much corrupted, and they have endeavoured to restore it by conjectural emendations. Its great obscurity is either expressly complained of by commentators, or substantiated by the fact, that all in turn reject the interpretations of their predecessors, while they cannot approve their own to those who succeed them.
Very different is it with the Rhetoric of Aristotle. It is undoubtedly genuine, perfect, and easily understood. But how does he there consider the oratorical art? As a sister of Logic: for as this produces conviction by its syllogism, so must Rhetoric in a kindred manner operate persuasion. This is about the same as to consider architecture simply as the art of building solidly and conveniently. This is, certainly, the first requisite, but a great deal more is still necessary before we can consider it as one of the fine arts. What we require of architecture is, that it should combine these essential objects of an edifice with beauty of plan and harmony of proportion, and give to the whole a correspondent impression. Now when we see how Aristotle, without allowing for imagination or feeling, has viewed oratory only on that side which is accessible to the understanding, and is subservient to an external aim, can it surprise us if that he has still less fathomed the mystery of poetry, that art which is absolved from every other aim but its own unconditional one of creating the beautiful by free invention and clothing it in suitable language?—Already have I had the hardihood to maintain this heresy, and hitherto I have seen no reason for retracting my opinion. Lessing thought otherwise. But what if Lessing, with his acute analytical criticism, split exactly on the same rock? This species of criticism is completely victorious when it exposes the contradictions for the understanding in works composed exclusively with the understanding; but it could hardly rise to the idea of a work of art created by the true genius.
The philosophical theory of the fine arts collectively was, as a distinct science, little cultivated among the ancients; of technical works on the several arts individually, in which the means of execution were alone considered, they had no lack. Were I to select a guide from among the ancient philosophers, it should undoubtedly be Plato, who acquired the idea of the beautiful not by dissection, which never can give it, but by intuitive inspiration, and in whose works the germs of a genuine Philosophy of Art, are every where scattered.
Let us now hear what Aristotle says on the Unity of Action.
"We affirm that Tragedy is the imitation of a perfect and entire action which has a certain magnitude: for there may be a whole without any magnitude whatever. Now a whole is what has a beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not necessarily after some other thing, but that which from its nature has something after it, or arising out of it. An end, on the other hand, is that which from its nature is after something else, either necessarily, or usually, but after which there is nothing, A middle, what is itself after some other thing, and after which also there is something. Hence poems which are properly composed must neither begin nor end accidentally, but according to the principles above laid down."
Strictly speaking, it is a contradiction in terms to say that a whole, which has parts, can be without magnitude. But Aristotle goes on to state, in explanation, that by "magnitude" as a requisition of beauty, he means, a certain measure which is neither so small as to preclude us from distinguishing its parts, nor so extensive as to prevent us from taking the whole in at one view. This is, therefore, merely an external definition of the beautiful, derived from experience, and founded on the quality of our organs of sense and our powers of comprehension. However, his application of it to the drama is remarkable. "It must have an extension, but such as may easily be taken in by the memory. The determination of the length according to the wants of the representation, does not come within the province of Art. With respect to the essence of the thing, the composition will be the more beautiful the more extensive it is without prejudice to its comprehensibility." This assertion would be highly favourable for the compositions of Shakspeare and of other romantic poets, who have included in one picture a more extensive circle of life, characters, and events, than is to be found in the simple Greek tragedy, if only we could show that they have given it the necessary unity, and such a magnitude as can be clearly taken in at a view, and this we have no hesitation in affirming to be actually the case.