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PROLOGUES AND EPILOGUES,
THE Prologue of the English drama was originally, like that of the ancients, merely a kind of argument of the play, instructing the audience concerning those particulars of the plot, which were necessary in order to understand the opening of the piece. That this might be done more artificially, it was often spoken in the character of some person connected with the preceding history of the intrigue, though not properly one of the dramatis persona. But when increasing refinement introduced the present mode of opening the action in the course of the play itself, the prologue became a preliminary address to the audience, bespeaking their attention and favour for the piece. The epilogue had always borne this last character, being merely an extension of the ancient" valete et plaudite," an opportunity seized by the performers, after resigning their mimic characters, to pay their respects to the public in their own, and to solicit its approbation of their exertions. By degrees it assumed a more important shape, and was indulged in descanting upon such popular topics as were likely to interest the audience, even though less immediately connected with the actors' address of thanks, or the piece they had been performing. Both the prologue and epilogue had assumed their present character so early as the days of Shakespeare and Jonson.
With the revival of dramatic entertainments, after the Restoration, these addresses were revived also; and a degree of consequence seems to have been attached to them in that witty age, which they did not possess before, and which has not since been given to them. They were not only used to propitiate the audience; to apologize for the players, or poet; or to satirize the follies of the day, which is now their chief purpose; but they became, during the collision of contending factions, vehicles of political tenets and political sarcasm, which could, at no time,
be insinuated with more success, than when clothed in nervous verse, and delivered with all the advantages of elocution to an audience, whose numbers rendered the impression of poetry and eloquence more contagious.
It is not surprising that Dryden soon obtained a complete and absolute superiority, in this style of composition, over all who pretended to compete with him. While the harmony of his verse gave that advantage to the speaker, which was wanting in the harsh, coarse, broken measure of his contemporaries, his powers of reasoning and of satire left them as far behind in sense as in sound. This superiority, and the great influence which he had in the management of the theatre, made it usual to invoke his assistance in the case of new plays; many of which he accordingly furnished either with prologues or epilogues. The players also had recourse to him upon any remarkable occasion; as, when a new house was opened; when the theatre was honoured by a visit from the king or duke; when they played at Oxford, during the public acts; or, in short, in all cases when an occasional prologue was thought necessary to grace their performance.
The collection of these pieces, which follows, is far from being the least valuable part of our author's labours. The variety and richness of fancy which they indicate, is one of Dryden's most remarkable poetical attributes. Whether the theme be, the youth and inexperience, or the age and past services, of the author; the plainness or magnificence of a new theatre; the superiority of ancient authors, or the exaltation of the moderns; the censure of political faction, or of fashionable follies; the praise of the monarch, or the ridicule of the administration; the poet never fails to treat it with the liveliness appropiate to verses intended to be spoken, and spoken before a numerous assembly. The manner which Dryden assumes, varies also with the nature of his audience. The prologues and epilogues, intended for the London stage, are writen in a tone of superiority, as if the poet, conscious of the justice of his own laws of criticism, rather imposed them upon the public as absolute and undeniable, than as standing in need of their ratification. And if he sometimes condescends to solicit, in a more humble style, the approbation of the audience, and to state circumstances of apology, and pleas of favour, it is only in the case of other poets; for, in the prologues of his own plays, he always rather demands than begs their applause; and if he acknowledges any defects in the piece, he takes care to intimate, that they are introduced in compliance with the evil taste of the age; and that the audience must take the blame to themselves, instead of throwing it upon the writer. This bold style of address, although it occasionally drew upon our author the