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As Tragedy sprung from the Dithyrambic Hymns, so did Comedy from the Phallic Songs, of early Greece. But the history of its infancy is not so well preserved, nor its progressive improvements so distinctly marked, as those of the sister art. This obscurity may perhaps be attributed to the greater difficulty attendant on comic writings; which rendered them slower in arriving at perfection, and, consequently, later in attracting the notice of critics, and historians. For, while the tragedian borrowed the ground-work of his plot from the chronicles of kings, or the legends of warriors, the comic poet is constrained to draw on fancy for the fable of his piece, and to inculcate his moral through the medium of fictitious characters and created incidents. Nor is this the only difference. To exhibit the operation of the Passions, is the aim of Tragedy, while Manners are the great object of Comedy. Thus, the tragic writer has only to look within himself for natural description, and to adjust the sentiments of the speakers by the emotions of his own heart: but it is the more arduous province of the comic poet to look abroad, amid the boundless diversity of human manners, for features, appropriate to the personages of his drama; to delineate numerous traits of character, not visible to vulgar eyes; to seize the evanescent forms of fashion; and to give to the “ airy nothings" of whim and caprice, " a local habitation, and a name.”
In the operation of these causes we see an ample reason, why the comic poets of antiquity are fewer, and of much less celebrity, than the early tragedians. Indeed, history does not enable us to mention, with certainty, any writers of this class before the time of Aristophanes, who may be considered
as the parent of Ancient Comedy. The characteristic of this species of dramatic composition, is the introduction of living persons on the stage by their proper names: and we have no specimens of this style, but a few plays from the pen
of the Rhodian Dramatist, all of which are stained by the grossest extravagancies, ribaldry, personal abuse, and profaneness ; poets and philosophers, generals and magistrates, priests, and even the deities themselves, were indiscriminately attacked by this unsparing satirist, and undeservedly held up to general derision. Socrates, Euripides, and Pericles, were all made to pass, in ludicrous review, before the Athenian populace. And when no actor could be found, hardy enough to personate Cleon, Aristophanes himself put on the sock, and, assuming the name and habit of that general, successfully exposed him to the shafts of public ridicule.
It was impossible, that this condition of the stage could be of any long duration. No state could long exist, where talents, virtue, government, and religion, might be derided with impunity. A law was accordingly enacted by Alcibiades, to check this dangerous licentiousness of the Athenian theatre. But, as it is not the nature of human inventions to pass, at once, from rude infancy to mature perfection, a period intervened between the early barbarism, and final improvement, of Comedy; in which it experienced a salutary change, that gradually led the way to a more finished style of composition. This state is known by the appellation of the Middle Comedy, in which the dramatist was obliged to omit the name of the person he intended to satyrise : But all the peculiarities of his person and dress might still be preserved, and these were generally so successfully copied, that it was impossible to mistake the magistrate in his robes, and the general in his uniform, especially as voice and gesture, age and gait, were called in as auxiliaries to identify the prototype, and contributed to render the picture a perfect likeness of the individual. Among the moderns, Moliere is a distinguished cultivator of this species of comedy. His Misanthrope is acknowledged as the portrait of the Duke de Montaunsier, and Oronte as that of the Duke de St Aignan. The first President sat for the Tartuffe, and Monsieur Robart for the Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Even our own stage has been disgraced by this species of comedy. Of this kind was the Poetaster of Ben Jonson, the Satiro-Mastix of Decker, the Rehearsal of Buckingham, and many of Foote's pieces. But, happily, this licentious style has been for many years obsolete in this country; and it is to be hoped, that we shall never witness its revival.
At last Menander arose, the parent of legitimate comedy, who, disdaining to seek applause by the description of individuals, looked abroad among the various classes of mankind for those general traits, which characterize human nature, or pervade whole societies of men. Thus, avoiding personality, which irritates without amending, and wounds without discriminating, Menander
the mirror to his whole audience, lashed the general follies of common life, and ennobled the moral purpose of the stage. It is generally regretted, that the founder of the New Comedy, as it is called, is only known to us by the works of his admirer and imitator, Terence, whose plays are still considered as models of elegant composition, and just representations of human life.
It is on the model of the Roman Menander, that the moderns construct their comedies; amplified, indeed, and enriched by a wider scope of plot, and a greater variety of character. The improved civilization of Europe has very much enlarged the sphere of the Comic Muse. For the diffusion of wealth and knowledge through the various classes of society encourages the growth of eccentricities, and leads the Promethean spark to foibles yet unanimated. Poverty cannot indulge her whims, and gross ignorance has none to gratify. But in no respect is our pre-eminence over the ancients so remarkable, as in the variety and spirit of our female characters, which afford such an additional interest to theatrical exhibitions, and constitute so great a part of their charm. In vain do we look on the Greek and Roman stage for the sprightly coquettry of a Millamant, the solemn prudery of a lady Graveairs, for the fashion and elegance of a lady Townly, or the rustic simplicity of a Miss Hoyden. The whole range of female character, in the ancient drama, is confined to concubines and procuresses. It is obvious, from this defect, that the fair sex had not, at that time, attained their proper ascendancy in society; but at the present day, they hold that just and elevated rank, which makes them principal parties in all the complex occurrences of real life, and gives them a corresponding place in the dramatic representations of it. The multiplicity of our female characters may also be owing to the admission of female performers, which were not allowed on the Roman stage. It is impossible, that a lady's part could be acted, with any effect, by a man in petticoats; while, on the other hand, it will be readily admitted, that the inimitable comic powers of a Clive, a Farren, and a Jordan, did not merely give a temporary
zest to the character represented, but animated the pen of the dramatist to fresh attempts and new exhibitions of female foible.
In following the steps of the ancients in dramatic composition, the English have not servilely copied them in every particular, but have added and rescinded, according to the alteration in the customs of society, and in the improved canons of criticism. But the French stage has not been so judicious. Moliere has eternally loaded his scene with the impertinence of abigails and valets; not reflecting, that the familiarity, to which the Romans admitted their servants, or their feedmen, who generally superintended the education of their children, unavoidably connected them in all their domestic concerns, and accounts for their share in the Drama. But these are not the inanners of France. It is on the stage alone, that the Le Fleurs and the Scapins are on such intimate terms with their masters. In common life, the same distinction is observed as with us; or, at least, that was the case in the time of Moliere. This, it must be confessed, was also the fault of some of our early comedies, but has since been laid aside, while the succesors of Moliere have continued the error of the great comic master. This, and other errors of more or less importance, sinks the French far below the English comedy.
But it is not only to the French, that we boast ourselves superior in comic writing, but to all our contemporaries. The Comic Muse flourishes most under a free government. Despotism compels uniformity of character; but in this favoured isle every wbim may be indulged. No laws operate to restrain caprice; no tyrant watches to punish private folly, controul inconsistencies, or revenge fickleness. In the land of Freedom grows the legitimate food of Comedy; and comic characters, in such a country, arrive at maturity, while, in a more ungenial region, they would have been checked, if not eradicated, in their earliest infancy. If we look to the Spanish, or Portuguese, or Russian theatre, we see the dramatic genius of the country kept down by the iron rod of despotism. The follies of the nobles must not be lashed; courtiers must not be exposed; and, if you touch upon religious hypocrisy, the doors of the Inquisition are open to receive you. Such is the state of comedy in tyrannic countries ; and it is with pride, that we contemplate the cause of its excellence in our own.
It was this conviction of the high character of true English comedy, which (among other reasons) induced the Editor to undertake this publication ; and he has followed a plan, which, he trusts, will be generally approved. As