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The Deuse is in Him,
R E MARKS
ENGLISH OPERA AND FARCE.
An Opera, in the strict and proper sense, is a Drama written in verse, and adapted to music, as well in the general dialogue as in the more lyrical passages. It was invented in Italy towards the end of the sixteenth century; and, perhaps, was originally no more than an improvement upon the Masque, which, though with less form and splendour, was employed upon similar subjects. No attempt was made to introduce this entertainment into England until after the great civil war, when its form was resorted to by Sir William D'Avenant, to elude the fanatic rigour of that period. “ It being forbidden him," says Dryden, “ in the rebellious times, to act tragedies and comedies, because they contained some matter of scandal to those good people, who could more easily dispossess their lawful sovereign than endure a wanton jest, he was forced to turn his thoughts another way, and, to introduce the examples of moral virtue, writ in verse and performed in recitative music.” These pieces were termed by their author, “ Entertainments by declamation and music, after the manner of the ancients.” When the Restoration had restored freedom to the Stage, these performances, which necessity had substituted in place of the old English Drama, were not long relished by a popular audience. The Siege of Rhodes, one of D'Avenant's best operas, was severely ridiculed in the Rehearsal; and though Dryden himself attempted to revive the opera, in the reign of James II., even his powers of poetic harmony could not give it popularity. This unpopularity was chiefly owing to the recitative, which is but ill adapted to our language and to the impatient temper of our audience. The English has neither the sweetness, majesty, nor pliability of the Italian : it is loaded with monosyllables, and encumbered with consonants, and cannot, with the utmost labour, be refined into perfect harmony. Neither have the English (generally speaking) a refined taste for music. The predominance of a tolerable, though uncultivated, ear for simple melody, usually secures the attention of an audience to a few short airs, whether lively or pathetic; but they have
always shown themselves incapable of enjoying, or even of supporting, the inonotony of prolonged scenes in recitative. Persons of rank, therefore, whose taste for the art was more refined, could only provide for enjoying it by importing the Italian Opera and foreign performers. This revolution took place, according to Cibber, early in the eighteenth century.
In ridicule of the then prevailing taste for the Italian stage, Gay composed his celebrated Beggars' Opera; but the author, while it was only his intention to satirize what he deemed stiff and unnatural in the Opera, presented the public with a new and popular species of Drama, happily adapted to the taste of the nation. This was the more remarkable, as the saine thing had happened to the Shepherd's Wake of the same author, which, although intended as a parody upon Philips' Pastorals, owed its popularity to its being read as a serious production. The amazing success of the Beggars' Opera is well known. Much was no doubt to be ascribed to tlie strokes of personal and political satire which it contained, and much to the humour of the dialogue. But still its popularity chiefly rested upon the combination of action and music in a manner to which the English audience had been hitherto strangers; and which, while a lively comic dialogue supplied the protracted languors of the recitative, gave thein a succession of songs adapted to character, and set to the most popular national airs. Accordingly, since that period, the English Opera has been a favourite variety of our Drama. No critic has ever deigned to lay down rules for its government; and, perhaps, like a disregarded colony, it has not thriven the worse for its exeinption from authority and restriction. The form, indeed, of this amusement, must be given up as unnatural and artificial; for who in real life express their feelings in music? In the Italian Opera this absurdity is shaded by our being transferred, as it were, into a country of music, where all the action and dialogue is adapted to that art; and where the recitative, in which the calmer scenes are performed, serves gradually to introduce and apologize for the airs, which in the English Opera are bluntly inserted into a plain prose dialogue. Yet this anomalous species of dramatic composition is not without its general principles of regulation. The tone of the English Opera is either comic, or, at least, turns upon the embarrassments of love, which claim a prescriptive title to vent themselves in song. The heroic character of the Italian Opera would appear absurd upon an English stage, although our ear is reconciled to it in the Haymarket, partly by habit, and partly by the disguise of a foreign language. The Opera Buffa we have copied with some success in the after-pieces of The Golden Pippin and Midas; but these are rather parodies of the Italian, than a distinct species of composition. To succeed in the English Opera, or at least to attain excellence, the author ought to possess musical knowledge, as well as power of dramatic writing; and so seldom has this union occurred, that most of our stock-operas are written by one author, Isaac Bickerstaff. Love in a Village, and the Padlock, are monuments of his genius in this species of composition. The Duenna is an instance of the versatility of Mr. Sheridan's wit and genius, which can either flash through a comedy, or sparkle in a song, at the pleasure of their owner. Rosina is a pleasing instance of the Pastoral Opera, but owes its chief popularity to the beauty of the inelodies. The English Opera seems now in its wane before a still more unregulated anomaly, the modern Melo-Drama, in which all that can mingle, may.
A FARCE, properly so called, is a short dramatic piece of broad huinour and bustle, in which an author is not restricted by the rules and decorum of legitimate Comedy. It seems to be tacked to our plays, as a sort of composition with the galleries, whose tenants, as the existing theatrical laws do not permit their betters and them to seek amusement in distinct theatres adapted to their several tastes, claim the privilege of an hour's coarse and uncontrolled inirth, after having endured five acts of pathos, or of refined wit. Farce has been justly compared to the grotesque style of painting, in which neither rule nor taste is required, provided a whimsical and burlesque effect be produced : yet some authors of considerable talent have not disdained to exercise themselves in these frolics of uncontrolled whim and fancy. The Apprentice, Miss in her Teens, High Life below Stairs, and the Citizen, are good examples of genuine English Farce. Others we have derived by translation from our neighbours, as The Mock Doctor, and Lying Valet, which have long been favourites.
But our English after-pieces include a description of Drama distinct from that in which the humour is strained to absurdity, and character driven beyond the verge of nature. For, as many of our professed comedies may be justly termed farces in five acts, so several of our after-pieces only differ from regular comedies in the point of duration. Of this description, are Bon Ton, The Maid of the Oaks, Three Weeks after Marriage, and The Deuse is in Him; which, under the title of farces, are, in truth, excellent specimens of genteel comedy. By a yet further departure from the general definition, The Miller of Mansfield, Lethé, and one or two moral dialogues of the same kind, are included in our list of farces.
The unlimited freedom permitted to the author of an after-piece, renders that kind of Drama peculiarly fit for the purposes of satire. This has been sometimes directed against the authors and taste of the period; as in our parodies, or mock-tragedies, and in the excellent Critic of Mr. Sheridan, which, being founded on the Rehearsal, has shown how far a copy may exceed its original. Sometimes farce has been employed in national satire, of which Macklin's Love à-la-Mode is the most successful example.
But even the personal satire of Aristophanes has been revived on the British stage; and the foibles and peculiarities of living individuals held up to the ridicule of the public. Fooie's wit, humour, and strong perception of the ludicrous, joined to his extraordinary power of inimicry, secured to him the most eininent success in this species of entertainment. Of its moral tendency some doubt may be entertained. It is true, that the doleful cant of the enthusiast, the trick and imposture of the knavish auctioneer, and the impudent presumption of the ignorant empiric, are the proper subjects of the scourge of ridicule: nor, while we consider the freedom they use with the souls, estates, and constitutions of their countrymen, can we grudge that the lash reaches their persons as well as their frauds and vices. But it is well kaown, that in the wanton exercise of his powers of satirical mimicry, Foote was tempted to violate the shade of domestic privacy, and to expose upon the stage the natural imperfections and innocent absurdities of persons, who no otherwise merited public ridicule, than because their peculiarities happened to be obnoxious to it. It is of the less consequence to examine the just limits of dramatic satire in this important particular, since it is very unlikely that a performer should again arise, capable of embodying with humour, and presenting with fidelity, the manners of living characters. The after-pieces of Foote are now seldom acted, having lost the high zest which they received from his own performance. Yet though his scenes are hastily and carelessly flung together, his drama abounds with wit, and with that highest strain of comic excellence, a decided strength of character. The manners of those whom he satirized are now forgotten ; but his dramatis personæ resemble a gallery of ancient portraits, of which we acknowledge the general truth and appearance of nature, though unable to ascertain personal resemblance by reference to the originals. li seems probable, that, notwithstanding what they have suffered from the evanescent nature of temporary satire, several of Foote's pieces might be still successfully revived, depending now upon their comic dialogue and general force of humour, for that applause which they originally derived from their application to real personages and events.