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In saying this, we know that we are expressing an opinion not the most acceptable to the lady herself. She is evidently very desirous, as it is natural she should be, that her plays may be performed and become popular in the theatres. Her several prefaces bear constant witness to this desire. But there are few who can receive the fulfilment of all their wishes. Let her be satisfied with the rank which she has won, and with the praise which crowns her name and will preserve her memory. Let her not complain that she has not reached the transcendant eminence on which he sits, who has written for the solitary student and the thronged playhouse, for all classes and for all times. Let her be thankful for the joy she gives to those who are not accustomed to besiege the ticket-office, and run mad after favorite actors and actresses, but whose approbation is doubtless as valuable as if they exhibited in these modes the quality of their taste and principles. Many of those who love to read her plays, seldom or never set their feet inside of a theatre; while the great body of those who frequent and support the theatre, and whose taste must be and is obeyed and consulted, would not go there to hear such plays as hers.
But Miss Baillie thinks that the absentees are wrong in neglecting the theatre, and that, if they would change their plan of action, and enter its doors in force, they would redeem it to the dominion of good taste and good morals. She allows the truth and the weight of the charges which are brought against playhouses; allows that the pieces generally exhibited in them are of bad tendency, and that the company who fill them and hang about them are, in great proportion, disorderly and worthless; but she still maintains, that the resort of a better class, those who conscientiously stay away, would alter the state of things, and remedy those crying evils.
"A manager," she says, "must suit his plays to the character of the most influential part of his audience. The crowd in the gallery and pit can be very well entertained with a piece that has neither coarseness nor immorality in it; but the more refined and better informed, who generally occupy the boxes, and occasionally the pit, cannot be pleased with one in which there is any thing immoral or indecorous. But, if the refined and well-informed stay away, there is nothing, then, to be taken into the account but how to please such auditors as commonly fill the pit and galleries; and the boxes will very soon be occupied by company, somewhat richer indeed, but not more scrupulous or intelligent than the others.
Now, supposing matters to have come to this pass, what kind of entertainment will be provided for them? Scurrility and broad satire is more easily procured than wit; and delineations of low profligacy require less skill than those of the habits and characters of higher or more virtuous society. Will a manager, then, be at pains to provide delicate fare for those who are as well satisfied with garbage? This is surely not to be expected; and, in as far as moral or intellectual improvement has been or may be superseded by intellectual debasement, occasioned by such well-meaning absentees from our theatres, so far does their absenting themselves do mischief."- Vol. 11., Preface.
This is just one of those specious arguments, the main defect in which is, that they are flatly contradicted by facts and experience. Is it a fact, that the theatre has ever been esteemed a pure and innocent place? Is it a fact, that it was a more pure and innocent place before a portion of society ceased to frequent it, than it was after their desertion? Is it not a fact, that the restraining influence exercised on the drama and the playhouse by those who stay away, is as strong as that which is exercised by those who go? What was it which originally drove away from the theatre the sober and the scrupulous, and thus created the absentees, -its morality or its immorality? Did the absentees cause the corruption of the theatre, or the corruption of the theatre cause the absentees? In the mother country, a large proportion of the clergy go to the theatres; in our own, they never go. Is the English theatre more moral than the American ? And what do the English clergy gain by going to the theatre? They gain the privilege of hearing occasional scurrilous jokes about parsons, and the equally enviable one of seeing themselves pictured in such books as "Syntax's Tour," and "Tom and Jerry," seated among a motley assembly on the pit benches, in full costume of black coats, white wigs, and red noses. Such is their gain, and such the influence which they exercise on the drama and on the opinions of the public.
But a great number of the virtuous portion of the community do go to the theatre, especially when there is any thing remarkably attractive to be heard or seen there. They go, because they are not principled against going. And what is their influence on this place of amusement? They are carried along with the stream. They give their countenance to many things which, under any other roof, they would deem intolera
ble. The theatre still remains, in the estimation of all who will seriously consider its organization and tendencies, as the place where there is more temptation concentred than in any other place which can be named; where the passions of the young are beset and stimulated as they are nowhere else; where pernicious excitement is breathed in with the air, and first steps on the road to ruin are taken with a sad and undiminished frequency. Tell us not, that it is our duty to go to this place. Mock us not with the fantasy that we should do any good by going. The plain fact is, that the main support of the theatre is derived from the time-killing, amusementloving, unreflecting, and unsettled members of society; and, until the taste of these becomes refined, and their manners and their morals reach a far higher elevation than at present, any essential reform of the theatre appears to us to be hopeless. We entertain no superstitious notions concerning plays or playhouses, no hostile feelings against players or their patrons. We merely say, that, looking on the theatre as it is and always has been, we cannot enter its doors, and have no idea that it will experience a radical improvement, till there is an essential change for the better in a very large portion of the community.
Having thus ventured to express our dissent from the opinions advanced by the authoress respecting our duties to the theatre, we will say a word of her three recently published volumes. And here we must give notice, that whatever praise we have bestowed or may bestow upon her plays, is the property of her tragedies and serious dramas only. If these cannot be publicly represented, because they are in a certain sense too good, her comedies do not deserve to be represented, because they are not worth the cost and trouble of representation. They fail in the very spirit of comedy. They have neither ease, nor grace, nor wit. Some of them are amusing enough, on a first perusal, to one who has time on his hands; for they contain scenes and situations which are sufficiently ludicrous to provoke a smile. But that is all. It is not in Miss Baillie's nature to write comedy; and therefore in speaking of her plays, we do not think for a moment of her comedies, so called.
They who have read the formerly published plays of this lady, will in all probability be disappointed by the volumes now before us. And they will be disappointed, not because these volumes are inferior to those which preceded them, but because they are not superior to them, and are too like them. We are
apt to be unjust to the works of cotemporary authors, in demanding that each work shall excel the one which went before it. If it does not excel it, we think that it is not equal to it, for it has not the freshness with which the first surprised and charmed us. Towards authors whose works were all printed and bound, before we could read or lisp, we are more fair. The works stand before us in wholeness and unity, and we simply point to those which please us best, without regard to the order of their original appearance. We fear that the "Basil," the "De Montfort," the "Ethwald," and the "Constantine Paleologus" of Miss Baillie have ill prepared her readers to estimate aright the merits of " Henriquez," "The Separation," and "The Homicide"; and yet these last are noble plays, and fully sustain the writer's reputation. There is the same grave and grand spirit in these as in those, the same lofty vein of thought, the same powerful expression of deep-heaving passion. There are, too, in the latter, the same faults which are observable in the former; a certain occasional stiffness, a defect of plot, a dead clumsiness in some of the subordinate characters. The passion of jealousy is too often employed to set the machinery of the piece in motion, to harass our feelings with its gloomy suspicions and obstinate misapprehensions, to fill up the sad scenes and bring about the fatal catastrophe. Though these three last volumes, therefore, are no improvement upon the elder born, we would not by any means have lost them, and we could not now upon any account part with them.
It is one of the peculiarities of Miss Baillie's plays, that there are but few passages in them which stand out singly and splendidly from the page, to be seized by the memory, and presented as specimens of her genius. If you take up a pencil to mark the lines which please you, you will hardly determine where to begin; and if you do begin, you will hardly know where to end. The lines are striking in their connexion with each other, and with the sentiment of the whole play, rather than by themselves. A whole scene, a whole character will be lofty throughout, one high table-land, without peaks and pinnacles. Thus it is that she is seldom quoted. She has written no short, bright sentences, no exquisitely condensed periods, no bold proverbs for the quoter. For such beauties, and we would not depreciate them, he must go to other poets. From her he must quote at length, or not at all.
If we were to quote scenes from these recent volumes for the
express purpose of vindicating their claims to an equal rank with the others, we should probably select those scenes which have already been transferred to the pages of the English reviews. But, because they have already appeared there, we shall pass them by, and go to some one of the plays which has not, so far as we know, been quoted from. Let us look into the drama, for instance, which is entitled "The Bride," and is contained in the third volume. It was written at the request of Sir Alexander Johnston when he was "President of His Majesty's Council in Ceylon," who thought, from his knowledge of the peculiar tastes of the people whom he governed, and of the good impression which had already been made upon them by a translation of one of Hannah More's Sacred Dramas, that a dramatic piece of a Christian character and tendency from Miss Baillie's pen, would assist his honorable labors for their improvement. Whether "The Bride" was ever translated into the Cingalese language, whether it was ever represented before the natives, and if so, with what effect, we do not know. This history of its origin and purpose, however, invests it with a singular and sufficient interest. In the Preface to this piece, Miss Baillie makes a short address to those for whose especial use it was written, and in whose country the story of it is supposed to have happened. She commences it thus. "I endeavour to set before you that leading precept of the Christian religion which distinguishes it from all other religions, the forgiveness of injuries. A bold and fierytempered people is apt to consider it as mean and pusillanimous to forgive; and I am persuaded that many a vindictive and fatal blow has been inflicted by those, whose hearts at the same moment have yearned to pardon their enemies. But Christians, who, notwithstanding the very imperfect manner in which they obey and have obeyed the precepts and example of Jesus Christ, do still acknowledge them, and have their general conduct influenced by them, are they a feeble and unhonored race? Look round in your own land, in other countries most 'connected with your own, and you will acknowledge that this is not the case. You will, therefore, I hope, receive in good part the moral of my story."
The story, or plot, is as follows. Rasinga, a brave and powerful chieftain, has lived for many years in faithful union with a single wife, Artina, though authorized by the custom of the country to have more than one. It happens, however, that,