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COMEDY is sufficiently discriminated from tragedy, by its general spirit and strain. While pity and terror, and the other strong passions form the province of the latter, the chief or rather sole instrument of the former, is ridicule. Comedy proposes for its object, neither the great sufferings nor the great crimes of men ; but their follies and slighter vices, those part of their characters which raise in beholders a sense of impropriety, which expose them to be censured, and laughed at by others, or which render them troublesome in civil society.

This general idea of comedy, as a satirical exhibition of the improprieties and follies of mankind, is an idea very moral and useful. There is nothing in the nature, or general plan of this kind of composition, that renders it liable to censure. To polish the manners of men, to promote attention to the proper decorums of social behaviour, and above all to render vice ridiculous, is doing real service to the world. Many vices might be more successfully exploded, by employing ridicule against them, than by serious attacks and arguments. At the same time it must be confessed, that ridicule is an instrument of such a nature, that when managed by unskilful, or improper hands there is hazard of its doing mischief, instead of good, to society. For ridicule is far from being, as some have maintained it to be, a proper test of truth. On the contrary, it is apt to be mislead, and seduce, by the colours which it throws upon its objects, and it is often more difficult to judge, whether these colours be natural and proper, than it is to distinguish between simple truth and error. Licentious writers, therefore, of the

comic class, have too often had it in their power to cast a ridicule upon characters and objects which did not deserve it. But this is a fault, not owing to the nature of comedy, but to the genius and turn of the writers of it. In the hands of a loose immoral author, comedy will mislead and corrupt; while in those of a virtuous and well-intentioned one, it will be not only a gay and innocent, but a laudable and useful entertainment. French comedy is an excellent school of manners; while English comedy has been too often the school of vice.

The rules respecting the dramatic action, which I delivered in the first Lecture upon tragedy, belong equally to comedy; and hence, of course, our disquisitions concerning it are shortened. It is equally necessary to both these forms of dramatic composition, that there be a proper unity of action and subject : that the unities of time and place, be, as much as possible, preserved; that is, that the time of the action be brought within reasonable bounds; and the place of the action never changed, at least, not during the course of each act; that the several scenes or successive conversations be properly linked together; that the stage be never totally evacuated till the act closes; and that the reason should appear to us, why the personages who fill up the different scenes, enter and go off the stage, at the time when they are made to do so. rules, I showed, was to bring the imitation as near as possible to probability; which is always necessary, in order to any imitation giving us pleasure. This reason requires, perhaps, a stricter observance of the dramatic rules in comedy, than in tragedy. For the action of comedy being more familiar to us than that of tragedy, more like what we are accustomed to see in common life, we judge more easily of what is probable, and are more hurt by the want of it. The probable and the natural, both in the conduct of the story, and in the characters and sentiments of the persons who are introduced, are the great foundation, it must always be remembered, of the whole beauty of comedy.

The scope of all these

The subjects of tragedy are not limited to any country, or to any age. The tragic poet may lay his scene, in whatever region he pleases. He may form his subject upon the history, either of his own, or of a foreign country; and he may take

it from any period that is agreeable to him, however remote in time. The reverse of this holds in comedy, for a clear and obvious reason. In the great vices, great virtues, and high passions, men of all countries and ages resemble one another; and are therefore equally subjects for the tragic muse. But those decorums of behaviour, those lesser discriminations of character, which afford subject for comedy, change with the differences of countries and times; and can never be so well understood by foreigners, as by natives. We weep for the heroes of Greece and Rome, as freely as we do for those of our own country: but we are touched with the ridicule of such manners and such characters only, as we see and know; and therefore the scene and subject of comedy, should always be laid in our own country, and in our own times. The comic poet, who aims at correcting improprieties and follies of behaviour, should study "to catch the manners living as they rise." It is not his business to amuse us with a tale of the last age, or with a Spanish or a French intrigue ; but to give us pictures taken from among ourselves; to satirize reigning and present vices; to exhibit to the age a faithful copy of itself, with its humours, its follies, and its extravagances. It is only by laying his plan in this manner, that he can add weight and dignity to the entertainment which he gives us. Plautus, it is true, and Terence, did not follow this rule. They laid the scene of their comedies in Greece, and adopted the Greek laws and customs. But it must be remembered, that comedy was, in their age, but a new entertainment in Rome; and that then they contented themselves with imitating, often with translating merely, the comedies of Manander, and other Greek writers. In after times, it is known that the Romans had the "Comœdia Togata," or what was founded on their own manners, as well as the "Comedia Palliata," or what was taken from the Greeks.

Comedy may be divided into two kinds; comedy of character, and comedy of intrigue. In the latter, the plot, or the action of the play, is made the principal object. In the former, the display of some peculiar character is chiefly aimed at ; the action is contrived altogether with a view to this end, and is treated as subordinate to it. The French abound most in

comedies of character. All Moliere's capital pieces are of this sort; his Avare, for instance, Misanthrope, Tartuffe ; and such are Destouches's also, and those of the other French comedians. The English have inclined more to comedies of intrigue. In the plays of Congreve, and, in general, in all our comedies, there is much more story, more bustle, and action, than on the French theatre.

In order to give this sort of composition its proper advantage, these two kinds should be properly mixed together. Without some interesting and well-conducted story, mere conversation is apt to become insipid. There should be always as much intrigue, as to give us something to wish, and something to fear. The incidents should so succeed one another, as to produce striking situations, and to fix our attention; while they afford at the same time a proper field for the exhibition of character. For the poet must never forget, that to exhibit characters and manners, is his principal object. The action in comedy, though it demands his care, in order to render it animated and natural, is a less significant and important part of the performance, than the action in tragedy: as in comedy, it is what men say, and how they behave, that draws our attention, rather than what they perform, or what they suffer. Hence it is a great fault to overcharge it with too much intrigue; and those intricate Spanish plots that were fashionable for a while, carried on by perplexed apartments, dark entries, and disguised habits, are now justly condemned and laid aside : for by such conduct, the main use of comedy was lost. The attention of the spectators, instead of being directed towards any display of characters, was fixed upon the surprising turns and revolutions. of the intrigue; and comedy was changed into a mere novel.

In the management of characters, one of the most common faults of comic writers, is the carrying of them too far beyond life. Wherever ridicule is concerned, it is indeed extremely difficult to hit the precise point where true wit ends, and buffoonery begins. When the miser, for instance, in Plautus, searching the person whom he suspects for having stolen his casket, after examining first his right hand, and then his left, cries out," ostende etiam tertiam," "shew me your third hand,” VOL. II. W w

(a stroke too which Moliere has copied from him) there is no one but must be sensible of the extravagance. Certain degrees of exaggeration are allowed to the comedian; but there are limits set to it by nature and good taste; and supposing the miser to be ever so much engrossed by his jealousy and his suspicions, it is impossible to conceive any man in his wits suspecting another of having more than two hands.


Characters in comedy ought to be clearly distinguished from one another; but the artificial contrasting of characters, and the introducing them always in pairs, and by opposites, give too theatrical and affected an air to the piece. This is become too common a resource of comic writers, in order to heighten their characters, and display them to more advantage. soon as the violent and impatient person arrives upon the stage, the spectator knows that, in the next scene, he is to be contrasted with the mild and good-natured man; or if one of the lovers introduced be remarkably gay and airy, we are sure that his companion is to be a grave and serious lover; like Frankly and Bellamy, Clarinda and Jacintha, in Dr. Hoadly's Suspicious Husband. Such productions of characters by pairs, is like the employment of the Antithesis in discourse, which, as I formerly observed, gives brilliancy indeed upon occasions, but is too apparently a rhetorical artifice. In every sort of composition, the perfection of art is to conceal art. A masterly writer will therefore give us characters, distinguished rather by such shades of diversity as are commonly found in society, than marked with such strong oppositions, as are rarely brought into actual contrast, in any of the circumstances of life.

The style of comedy ought to be pure, elegant, and lively, very seldom rising higher than the ordinary tone of polite conversation; and, upon no occasion, descending into vulgar, mean, and gross expressions. Here the French rhyme, which in many of their comedies they have preserved, occurs as an unnatural bondage. Certainly, if prose belongs to any composition whatever, it is to that which imitates the conversation of men in ordinary life. One of the most difficult circumstances in writing comedy, and one too, upon which the success of it very much depends, is to maintain, throughout, a current of easy, genteel, unaffected dialogue, without pertness and flippancy;

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