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and aversion. Beastliness in behaviour gives a disparaging idea of human nature, and almost makes us sorry we are of the same kind. For these reasons it is a maxim in good breeding, never to shock the senses or imagination. This rule holds strongest before women, and especially when they come to be entertained.” The diversion ought to be suited to the audience. In a word, the representation of vice increases our familiarity with it; and familiarity diminishes disgust. By the very knowledge of the prevalence of infamous and aboininable practices, the purity of the mind is soiled, and the belief in virtue is shaken.
But these are mere propositions, which you will probably admit. What then are the facts ? Observe the rise and progress of British comedy. I would ask your real and honest opinion of many scenes, and a few plays, even of Shakspeare? of the pieces of Dryden, or Durfey, or Etheridge, or Vanbrugh, or Wycherley, or Congreve, or Mrs. Centliore, or any of the modern farcemongers, who have imagined they were writing comedies. Do you in your heart believe, that any person can be improved either in understanding or in morals, by reading them, or seeing them performed ? Could you truly wish your wife, or sister, or daughter, to be often present at their representation ? Can you in fact suppose, that their minds would be edified, or even remain uninjured, by a very large proportion of the comedies, which are most generally acted, either in England or on the continent? Can the loose jokes, the stupid buffoonery, the studied indecency of ambiguous expres. sions, be agreeable to their ears, or propitious to their virtue? Is there no danger, do you think, that they will lose something of that retiring sensitiveness, which shrinks from the slightest breath of pollution; to that instinctive delicacy, which is shocked even before the conscience is alarmed? Answer me candidly upon these points :--for I think they are decisive of the whole question at issue.
URBANUS. I cannot deny that comedies of an immoral tendency have been both written and performed. And feeling, as I do, for the honour of the stage; a believer, as I am, in its capabilities of doing good; and anxious, therefore, as I
must be, for its improvement, I nake the avowal with infinite regret. I fear, too, that I must give up all the dramatic writers of the time of Charles the Second. But shall it be said, that the majority even of English comedies conduce to the extension of immorality and disorder? have no vices been exposed, and branded with infamy? have not the folly and sin and mischief of gaming been displayed ? have not the absurdities of society been corrected by the force of ridicule ? have not the arts and turnings of hypocrisy been laid open and chastised ? has not a spirit of humanity and generosity been powerfully inculcated ? and have not the milder and more amiable virtues been uniformly recommended to the practice of mankind? What I would ask you, in return for your questions, do you suppose to be the influence of the plays of Cumberland, or of such comedies as “ Tartuffe," or the " School for Scandal ?" I mention the two latter as a proof that the best plays are invariably the most moral.
CLERICUS. I admire the stage; but I love truth. This consideration obliges me to say, that I believe even such plays as “ Tartuffe," or the “ School for Scandal,” do more harm than good. Here indeed lies the whole point and stress of my argument. Comedy attacks the vices, which of themselves are odious, but spares those that are agreeable. It attacks hypocrisy—but do we want the theatre to teach us, that hypocrisy is detestable ?—it attacks avarice-but are misers objects of admiration in the world ? it attacks scandal-but are scandal-mongers, and slanderers, and backbiters more loved and caressed in society, in proportion as they are more known? But upon those transgressions, to which men are naturally driven by their passions and desires-upon those faults, of which the example is contagious, which spread among the thoughtless and dissipated part of the community, like fire along the stubble, the theatre is silent in its reprehension. The writers of comedy are like the commander of a fortress, who should leave the weak side undefended and open to the besiegers, while he carried all his garrison to a point where there was no danger. In fact, they do worse: they
depict the rnost splendid and most pleasant of our vices in bright and captivating colours. They give all the powers of wit, and all the fascinations of language, to the share of the gay libertine, and the fascinating intriguer. Thus they check absurdities, and encourage crimes ; they ridicule follies and corrupt principles. It is so: and, as far as I see, it must be so. “ And after all,” says Jeremy, “ the jest on't is, these men would make us believe their design is virtue and reformation. In good time! They are likely to combat vice with success, who destroy the principles of good and evil! Take them at the best, and they do no more than expose a little humour and formality. But then, as the matter is managed, the correction is much worse than the fault. They laugh at Pedantry, and teach Atheism-cure a pimple, and give the plague. I heartily wish they would have let us alone. To exchange virtue for behaviour is a hard bargain. Is not plain honesty much better than hypocrisy well-dressed? What is sight good for without substance? What is a well-bred liber. tine but a well-bred knave? One that can't prefer conscience to pleasure, without calling himself fool : and will sell his friend, or his father, if need be, for his convenience. In short: nothing can be more disserviceable to probity and religion, than the management of the stage. It cherishes those passions, and rewards those vices, which it is the business of reason to discountenance. It strikes at the root of principle, draws off the inclinations from virtue, and spoils good education. 'Tis the most effectual means to baffle the force of discipline, to emasculate people's spirits, and debauch their manners. How many of the unwary have these sirens devoured? And how often has the best blood been tainted with this infection? What disappointment of parents, what confusion in families, and what beggary in estates has been hence occasioned ?"
Allow me to state one more argument, which has been urged against comedy. It is a radical objection : perhaps it is a painful one. Laughter, it is said, generally proceeds from a sense of our own superiority; and most ridicule has in it something of ill-nature. Comedy, therefore, has a tendency to excite and foster the emotions, of pride, vanity, self-sufficiency, contempt for others, and all the unamiable feelings of the human mind.
I would meet this objection by a sweeping denial. In even the satirical species of comedy we laugh as often at ourselves as at our neighbours: we are shamed out of our own follies, and are taught the duties of that inferior morality in the common affairs of life, which it is not the business of the pulpit to inculcate. And it is the object of ail comedy to inspire harmless mirth, and careless gaiety. We laugh almost for laughter's sake ; not from spleen, but from good-humour; not from a sense of derision, but from a feeling of hilarity. Comedy, while it excites a rational cheerfulness in our hearts, smiles away all that is sour, or gloomy, or cold, or saturnine in our temperament, and removes as it were the peccant humours of our disposition.
CLERICUS. So much, then, for comedy. With regard to the intermediate departments of the theatre, such as the satirical drama of the Greeks; the farces and rude exhibitions of the ancient Romans; the pastoral drama: the histories and masques and mysteries and moralities of modern Europe, I shall say nothing more, than that I believe them generally to be as indefensible on the score of morals as of taste. The question, however, is not before us, whether in a critical point of view, tragi-comedy, in its several varieties, is allowable or barbarous ; and it is evident, that it can have little distinct influence, which is not combined, blended, and compounded, of regular tragedy and regular comedy. I have spoken solely of the real and legitimate drama ; and, as I find, even here, that most existing compositions might be banished with advantage from the stage ; and moreover, that the interests of virtue and of society would have been better consulted, if no theatres had ever been established, far less can I be supposed to approve all the other exhibitions of the scene, all the abortions of tragedy and comedy, all the grossness and indecency, whether addressed to the eye or ear, of which the tendency can only be to inflame the worst passions, and feed the lowest appetites; and the effect, wherever they are encouraged, to cast disgrace upon the taste of the age, and reflect dishonour upon the literature of the country. With regard to operas, and opera-dancers—the lacrymose melodrames, which we have borrowed from the Continent the cruelty, and lamentable want of refinement in producing animals upon the stage-the
THE PRESIDENT. I am sorry to interrupt you--but the conversation, I begin to fear, has already been too long. You are both right, probably; and both wrong: but at any rate the conflict of opinions, and the impartial investigation of the subject may have some practical utility in helping to determine the real merits of the stage, and the most beneficial manner in which it can be conducted.
With regard to your dispute upon the influence of the drama, as it can be collected from the intrinsic qualities of tragedy and comedy, and the character of existing plays, I would express my opinion by borrowing Plutarch's quotation :
Φάρμακα πολλά μέν έσθλα μεμιγμένα, πολλά δε λυγρά. Many questions of great interest must be reserved :for instance, what the influence of the drama has been, and what it may be, from looking at the history of nations, and the annals of the theatre--what consequences have resulted from the establishment of play-houses, and what circumstances must necessarily attend the actual representation of dramatic performances--whether, if theatres existed, the time which is now occupied at their exhibitions would be worse or better employed, and worse or better habits would be engendered-what have been the habits of actors, and what opinions have been entertained concerning them—what authorities may be adduced on both sides of the argument_and finally, what is the present state of the stage, and what improvements may be suggested as at once expedient and salutary; and likely to be efficient. To this last point, indeed, our attention must be particularly directed. It is a question of no ordinary importance: for it is now too late to prevent dramatic exhibitions, even if they be fraught with disorder, immorality, and ruin: and therefore it only remains, if it be possible, to reform their abuses, and correct their