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Nor let Medea's hand destroy,
Disgust forbids me to assent. The French critics join with Horace in excluding blood from the stage; but overlooking the most substantial objection, they urge only that it is barbarous, and shocking to a polite audience. The Greeks had no notion of such delicacy, or rather effeminacy: witness the murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestés, passing behind the scene as represented by Sophocles: her voice is heard calling out for mercy, bitter expostulations on his part, loud shrieks upon her being stabbed, and then a deep silence. I appeal to every person of feeling, whether this scene be not more horrible than if the deed had been committed in sight of the spectators upon a sudden gust of passion. If Corneille, in representing the affair between Horatius and his sister, upon which murder ensues behind the scene, had no other view but to remove from the spectators a shocking action, he was guilty of a capital mistake: for murder in cold blood, which in some measure was the case as represented, is more shocking to a polite audience, even where the conclusive stab is not seen, than the same act performed in their presence by violent and unpremeditated passion, as suddenly repented of as committed. I heartily agree with Addison,* that no part of this incident ought to have been represented, but reserved for a narrative, with every alleviating circumstance in favor of the hero.
A few words upon the dialogue; which ought to be so conducted as to be a true representation of nature. I talk not here of the sentiments, nor of the language; for these come under different heads: I talk of what properly belongs to dialogue-writing; where every single speech, short or long, ought to arise from what is said by the former speaker, and furnish matter for what comes after, till the end of the scene. In this view, all the speeches, from first to last, represent so many links of one continued chain. No author, ancient or modern, possesses the art of dialogue equal to Shakspeare. Dryden, in that particular, may justly be placed as his opposite: he frequently introduces three or four persons speaking upon
the same subject, each throwing out his own notions separately, without regarding what is said by the rest: take for an example the first scene of Aurenzebe. Sometimes he makes a number club in relating an event, not to a stranger, supposed ignorant of it; but to one another, for the sake merely of speaking : of which notable sort of dialogue, we have a specimen in the first scene of the first part of the Conquest of Granada. In the second part of the same tragedy, scene second, the king, Abenamar, and Zulema, make their separate observations, like so many soliloquies, upon the fluctuating temper of the mob. A dialogue so uncouth, puts one in mind of two shepherds in a pastoral,
* Spectator, No. 44.
excited by a prize to pronounce verses alternately, each in praise of his own mistress.
This manner of dialogue-writing, beside an unnatural air, has another bad effect: it stays the course of the action, because it is not productive of any consequence. In Congreve's comedies, the action is often suspended to make way for a play of wit
. But of this more particularly in the chapter immediately following:
No fault is more common among writers, to prolong a speech after the impatience of the person to whom it is addressed ought to prompt him or her to break in. Consider only how the impatient actor is to behave in the mean time. To express his impatience in violent action without interrupting, would be unnatural; and yet to dissemble his impatience, by appearing cool where he ought to be highly inflamed, would be no less so.
Rhyme being unnatural and disgustful in dialogue, is happily banished from our theatre: the only wonder is that it ever found admittance, especially among a people accustomed to the more manly freedom of Shakspeare's dialogue. By banishing rhyme, we have gained so much, as never once to dream of any
farther improvement. And yet, however suitable blank verse may be to elevated characters and warm passions, it must appear improper and affected in the mouths of the lower sort. Why then should it be a rule, that every scene in tragedy must be in blank verse ? Shakspeare, with great judgment, has followed a different rule; which is, to intermix prose with verse, and only to employ the latter where it is required by the importance or dignity of the subject. Familiar thoughts and ordinary fact ought to be expressed in plain language: to hear, for example, a footman deliver a simple message in blank verse, must appear
ridiculous to every one who is not biassed by custom. In short, that variety of characters and of situations, which is the life of a play, requires not only a suitable variety in the sentiments, but also in the diction.
THE THREE UNITIES.
An entire action formed, when the incidents are connected by the relation of cause
and effect-Unity of action, a beauty; but a plurality of unconnected fables, a fault-The stating of facts in the order of time to be departed from for the sake of higher beauties- In a play each scene to hasten or retard the catastropheAll the facts in an historical fable, to have a natural connection by a relation to the grand event-The mind satisfied with a slighter degree of unity in a picture than in a poem—The unities of time and place rigidly adhered to on the ancient stage, and inculcated by modern critics-Unity of time and place not required in a narrative poem- The necessary limits of dramatic representation–The refutation of this observation–The origin of tragedy in Greece-The improve ments of Thespis and Æschylus- The first scene the prologue - In the second scene the chorus introduced and continued— The course pursued by Sophocles and Euripides—The advantages and the disadvantages of the chorus—The advantages of the chorus supplied in English by the proper use of music-Defects of the Greek drama on account of its unity of place and of time- The place of action to be constantly occupied— The stage to be constantly occupied during the action-Every person introduced upon the stage to be connected with those in possession of it.
In the first chapter, is explained the pleasure we have in a chain of connected facts. In histories of the world, of a country, of a people, this pleasure is faint, because the connections are slight or obscure. We find more entertainment in biography; because the inci. dents are connected by their relation to a person who makes a figure, and commands our attention. But the greatest entertainment is in the history of a single event, supposing it interesting; and the reason is, that the facts and circumstances are connected by the strongest of all relations, that of cause and effect : a number of facts that give birth to each other form a delightful train; and we have great mental enjoyment in our progress from the beginning to the end.
But this subject merits a more particular discussion. When we consider the chain of causes and effects in the material world, independent of purpose, design, or thought, we find a number of incidents in succession, without beginning, middle, or end: every thing that happens is both a cause and an effect; being the effect of what goes before, and the cause of what follows: one incident may affect us more, another less; but all of them are links in the universal chain: the mind, in viewing these incidents, cannot rest or settle ultimately upon any one; but is carried along in the train without
close. But when the intellectual world is taken under view, in conjunction with the material, the scene is varied. Man acts with deliberation, will, and choice: he aims at some end, glory, for example, or riches, or conquest, the procuring of happiness to individuals, or to his country in general : he proposes means, and lays plans to attain the end purposed. Here are a number of facts or incidents leading to the end in view, the whole composing one chain by the relation of cause and effect. In running over a series of such facts or incidents, we cannot rest upon any one; because they are presented to us as means only, leading to some end: but we rest with satisfaction upon the end or ultimate event; because there the purpose or aim of the
chief person or persons is accomplished. This indicates the beginning, the middle, and the end, of what Aristotle calls an entire action.* The story naturally begins with describing those circumstances which move the principal person to form a plan, in order to compass some desired event: the prosecution of that plan and the obstruetions, carry the reader into the heat of action : the middle is properly where the action is the most involved; and the end is where the event is brought about, and the plan accomplished.
A plan thus happily accomplished after many obstructions, affords wonderful delight to the reader; to produce which, a principle mentioned abovef mainly contributes, the same that disposes the mind to complete every work commenced, and in general to carry every thing to a conclusion.
I have given the foregoing example of a plan crowned with success, because it affords the clearest conception of a beginning, a middle, and an end, in which consists unity of action; and indeed stricter unity cannot be imagined than in that case.
But an action may have unity, or a beginning, middle, and end, without so intimate a relation of parts; as where the catastrophe is different from what is intended or desired, which frequently happens in our best tragedies. In the Æneid, the hero, after many obstructions, makes his plan effectual. The Iliad is formed upon a different model: it begins with the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon; goes on to describe the several effects produced by that cause; and ends in a reconciliation. Here is unity of action, no doubt, a beginning, a middle, and an end; but inferior to that of the Æneid, which will thus appear. The mind has a propensity to go forward in the chain of history: it keeps always in view the expected event; and when the incidents or under-parts are connected by their relation to the event, the mind runs sweetly and easily along them. This pleasure we have in the Æneid. It is not altogether so pleasant, as in the Iliad, to connect effects by their common cause; for such connection forces the mind to a continual retrospect : looking back is like walking backward.
Homer's plan is still more defective, upon another account, that the events described are but imperfectly connected with the wrath of Achilles, their cause : his wrath did not exert itself in action; and the misfortunes of his countrymen were but negatively the effects of his wrath, by depriving them of his assistance.
If unity of action be a capital beauty in a fable imitative of human affairs, a plurality of unconnected fables must be a capital deformity. For the sake of variety, we indulge an under-plot that is connected with the principal: but two unconnected events are extremely unpleasant, even where the same actors are engaged in both. Ariosto is quite licentious in that particular: he carries on at the same time a plurality of unconnected stories. His only excuse is, that his plan is perfectly well adjusted to his subject; for every thing in the Orlando Furioso is wild and extravagant. Though to state facts in the order of time is natural, yet that order * Poet. cap. 6. See also cap. 7.
Chap. 8. c
may be varied for the sake of conspicuous beauties.* If, for example, a noted story, cold and simple in its first movements, be made the subject of an epic poem, the reader may be hurried into the heat of action: reserving the preliminaries for a conversation-piece, if thought necessary; and that method, at the same time, has a peculiar beauty from being dramatic.f But a privilege that deviates from nature ought to be sparingly indulged; and yet romance-writers make no difficulty of presenting to the reader, without the least preparation, unknown persons engaged in some arduous adventure equally unknown. In Cassandra, two personages, who afterward are discovered to be the heroes of the fable, start up completely armed upon the banks of the Euphrates, and engage in a single combat. I
A play analyzed, is a chain of connected facts, of which each scene makes a link. Each scene, accordingly, ought to produce some incident relative to the catastrophe or ultimate event,' by advancing or retarding it. A scene that produces no incident, and for that reason may be termed barren, ought not to be indulged, because it breaks the unity of action : a barren scene can never be entitled to a place, because the chain is complete without it. In the Old Bachelor, the 3d scene of act 2. and all that follow to the end of that act, are mere conversation-pieces, productive of no consequence. The 10th and 11th scenes, act 3, Double Dealer, the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th scenes, act 1, Love for Lovė, are of the same kind.
Neither is The Way of the World entirely guiltless of such scenes. It will be no justification, that they help to display characters: it were better, like Dryden, in his dramatis persona, to describe characters beforehand, which would not break the chain of action. But a writer of genius has no occasion for such artifice: he can display the characters of his personages much more to the life in sentiment and action. How successfully is this done by Shakspeare! in whose works there is not to be found a single barren scene.
Upon the whole, it appears, that all the facts in an historical fable, ought to have a mutual connection, by their common relation to the grand event or catastrophe. And this relation, in which the unity of action consists, is equally essential to epic and dramatic compositions.
In handling unity of action, it ought not to escape observation, that the mind is satisfied with slighter unity in a picture than in a poem; because the perceptions of the former are more lively than the ideas of the latter. In Hogarth's Enraged Musician, we have a collection of every grating sound in nature, without any mutual connection except that of place. But the horror they give to the delicate ear of an Italian fidler, who is represented almost in * See Chap. 1.
+ See Chap. 21. # I am sensible that a commencement of this sort is much relished by readers disposed to the marvellous. Their curiosity is raised, and they are much tickled in its gratification. But curiosity is at an end with the first reading, because the personages are no longer unknown; and therefore at the second reading, a commencement so artificial loses its power even over the vulgar. A writer of genius prefers lasting beauties.