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ON THE OLD
ENGLISH DRAMATICK WRITERS.. by George Colman. Esql.
To David G ARRICK, Efq.
Glance of your Eye over the Advertisement of a new Pamphlet, addressed to yourself, you are apt to feel some little Emotion ; that you bestow more than ordinary Attention on the Title, as it stands in the News-Paper, and take Notice of the Name of the Publisher.--- Is it Compliment or Abuse ?---One of these being determined, you are perhaps eager to be satisfied, whether some coarse Hand has laid on Encomi. ums with a Trowel, or some more elegant Writer(suchi as the Author of The Ae or for instance) has done Credit to himself and you by his Panegyrick; or, on the other Hand,whetherany offended Genius has employed those Talents against you, which he is ambitious of exercising in the Service of your Theatre; or some common Scribe has taken your Character, as he would that of any other Man or Woman, or Minister, or the King, if he durst, as a popular Topick of Scandal.
Be not alarmed on the present Occasion ; nor, with that Consciousness of your own Merit, so natural to the Celebrated and eminent, indulge yourfelf in an Acquiescence with the Justice of ten thousand fine Things, which you may suppose ready to
be said to you. No private Satire or Panegyrick, but the general Good of the Republick of Letters, and of the Drama in particular, is intended. Though Praise and Dispraise stand ready on each side, like the Vessels of Good and Evil on the Right and Left Hand of Jupiter, I do not mean to dip into either : Or, if I do, it shall be, like the Pagan Godhead himself, to mingle a due Proportion of each. Sometimes, perhaps, I may find Fault, and sometimes bestow Commendation : But you must not expect to hear of the Quickness of your Conception, the Justice of your Execution, the Expression of your Eye, the Harmony of your Voice, or the Variety and Excellency of your Deportment; nor shall you be maliciously informed, that you are shorter than Barry, leaner than Quin, and less a Favourite of the Upper Gallery than Woodward or Shuter.
The following pages are destined to contain a Vindication of the Works of Massiger, one of our old Dramatick Writers, who very feldoin falls much beneath Shakespeare himself, and sometimes -almost rises to a proud Rivalship of his chiefes Excellencies. They are meant too as a landable, though faint, Attempt to rescue these admirable Pieces from the too general Neglect which they now labour under, and to recommend them to the Notice of the Publick. To whom then can such an Effay be more properly inscribed than to you, whom that Publick seems to have appointed, as its chief Arbiter Deliciarum, to preside over the Amusements of the Theatre? But there is also, by the bye, a private Reason for addressing you. Your honelt Friend Davies, who, as is said of the provident Comedian in Holland, spends his Houri of Vacation from the Theatre in his Shop, is too well acquainted with the Efficacy of your Name at the Top of a Play-Bill, to omit an Opportunity of prefixing it to a new Publication, hoping it may prove a Charen
to draw in Purchaeri, like the Head of Shakespeare on his Sign. My Letter too being anonyinous, your Name at the Head, will inore than compensate for the Want of mine at the End of it: And our above-mentioned Friend is, no Doubi, too well versed in both his Occupations, not to know the Consequence of Secrecy in a Bookseller, as well as the Necessity of concealing from the Publick many Things that pass behind the Curtain.
There is perhaps no Country in the World more subordinate to the Power of Fashion than our own. Every Whim, every Word, every Vice, every Virgue, in its Turn becomes the Mode, and is followed with a certain Rage of Approbation for a Time. The favourite Stile in all the polite Arts, and the reiguing Taste in Letters, are as notoriously Objects of Caprice as Architecture and Dress. A new Poem, or Novel, or Farce, are as inconsiderately extolled or decried as a Rufi or a Chinese Rail, a Hoop or a Bow Window. Hence it happens, that the publick Tafte is often vitiated : Or if, by Chance, it has made a proper Choice, becomes partially attached to one Species of Excellence, and remains dead to the Sense of all other Merit, however cqual, or superior.
I think I may venture to affert, with a Confidence, that on Reflection it will appear to be true, that the eminent Class of Writers, who fourished at the Beginning of this Century, have almost entirely super, feded their illustrious Predecessors. The Works of Congrev?, Vanbrugh, Steele, Addifan, Pope, Swift, Gay, &c. &c. are the chief Study of the Million: I fay, of the Million ; for as to those few, who are not only familiar with all our own Authors, but are alio conversant with the Ancients, they are not to be cir. cumscribed by the narrow Limits of the Fashion. Shakespeare and Milton seem to stand alone, like firstrate Authors, amid the general Wreck of oid English
Literature. Milton perhaps owes much of his prefent Fame to the generous Labours and good Taste of Addison. Shakespeare has been transmitted down to us with successive Glories ; and you, Sir, have continued, or rather increased, his Reputation: You have, in no fulsome Strain of Compliment, been fiiled the Best Commentator on his Works : But have you not, like other Commentators, contracted a narrow, exclusive, Veneration of your Author? Has not the Contemplation of Shakespeare's Exceliencies almost dazzled and extinguished your Judgement, when directed to other Objects, and made you blind to the Merit of his Cotemporaries? Under your Dominion, have not Beaumont and Fletcher, nay even Johnjon, suffered a Kind of thea trical Disgrace? And has not poor Majlinger, whose Cause I have now undertaken, been permitted to languish-in Obscurity, and remained almost entirely unknown?
To this perhaps it may be plausibly answered, nor indeed without some Foundation, that many of our old Plays, though they abound with Beauties, and are raised much above the humble Level of later Writers, are yet, on several Accounts, unfit to be exhibited on the modern Stage; that the Fable, instead of being raised on probable Incidents in real Life, is generally built on some foreign Novel, and attended with romantick Circumstances; that the Conduct of these extravagant Stories is frequently uncouth, and infinitely offensive to that dramatick Correctness prescribed by late Criticks, and practised, as they pretend, by the French Writers ; and that the Characters, exhibited in our old Plays, can have no pleasing Effect on a modern Audience, as they are so totally different from the Manners of the present Age.
These, and such as these, might once have appeared reasonable Objections : But you, Sir, of all
Persons, Persons, cari urge them with the least Grace, since your Practice has so fully proved their Insufficiency. Your Experience must have taught you, that when a Piece has any striking Beauties, they will cover a Multitude of Inaccuracies ; and that a Play need not be written on the severest Plan, to please in the Representation. The Mind is foon familiarized to Irregularities, which do not fin against the Truth of Nature, but are merely Violations of that strict Decorum of late so earnestly insisted on. What patient Spectators are we of the Inconsistencies that confeffédly prevail in our darling Shakespeare! What critical Catcall ever proclaimed the Indecency of introducing the Stocks in the Tragedy of Lear? How quietly do we see Glofter take his imaginary Leap from Dover Cliff! Or to give a stronger Instance of Patience, with what a philosophical Calmness do the Audience dose over the tedious, and uninteresting, Love-Scenes, with which the bungling Hand of Tate has coarsely pieced and patched that rich Work of Shakespeare! To instance further from Shakespeare himself, the Grave-diggers in Hamlet (not to mention Polonius) are not only endured, but applauded; the very Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is allowed to be Nature; the Transactions of a whole History are, without Offence, begun and compleated in less than three Hours ; and we are agreeably wafted by the Chorus, or oftener without so much Ceremony, from one End of the World to another.
It is very true, that it was the general Practice of our old Writers, to found their Pieces on some foreign Novel; and it seemed to be their chief Aim to take the Story, as it stood, with all its appendant Incidents of every Complexion, and throw it into Scenes. This Method was, to be sure, rather inartificial, as it at once overloaded and embarrassed the Fable, leaving it deftitute of that beautiful dramatick Connection, which enables the Mind to take in all