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The object of this collection is to include, in a concise and portable form, such plays as either retain possession of the stage, or are easily capable of being accommodated to it; à principle of selection which necessarily excludes the earlier and ruder essays of the dramatic muses, while due regard to the laws of literary property prevents its being extended to a very recent period. The works of Shakespeare have also been omitted, as in the hands of every lover of the drama. But, under these restrictions, the following volumes contain the master-pieces of every dramatic author of eminence, selected, without distinction, from three several periods of the history of the stage; a few remarks upon which may form no improper introduction to the collection.
I. The earliest period of the tragic drama, as a refined and artificial composition, distinct from the rude mysteries and moralities of our ancestors, may be held to extend from the end of the sixteenth century to the breaking out of the great civil war in 1642. It is adorned by some of the greatest names wbich British poetry can boast, and exhibits specimens of genius, which we may in vain seek to parallel during the ruder era that preceded, or the more polished times which followed. But although the genius of this period be indisputably predominant, it was exerted upon subjects, and under circumstances, which disqualified the greater part of the theatrical pieces it boasts from retaining possession of a modern stage. The wild and extravagant character of the incidents, the irregularity of the plot, the total and uncompromising neglect of the unities of time and place, although they may not greatly revolt the reader in his closet, render the pieces in which they abound embarrassing, as well as disgusting, in representation. Even the splendour of Shakespeare himself has been unable altogether to overcome the disadvantages arising from the rude state of the drama at the time when he wrote, insomuch that almost the one half of his inimitable plays are excluded from a stage which owes its chief glory to his name. Were it here our object to trace the causes why the period most abounding in dramatic, particularly in tragic genius, affords us so few specimens of acting plays, or rather of plays now it to be acted, the inquiry would carry us far; for it is not merely to the rude state of the
art so near its commencement, but to a number of corresponding contingencies, that the imperfections of our earlier drama must necessarily be ascribed. The applause which the ancient tragedians courted was seldom that of a select audience, far less, as was early the case in France, that of a fastidious and critical court, with a monarch in its centre. The dramatic pieces of Shakespeare, Massinger, Beaumont, Fletcher, and Ford, were represented before a miscellaneous concourse, whom chance, or the reputation of the author, happened to assemble for the night, in any of the twenty theatres which were nightly opened in the metropolis. Such an audience little prized the art, unity, and coherence of the pieces represented; and the indolence which almost uniformly accompanies genius was careful to give them no more than they demanded, and were capable of enjoying. If their pieces afforded striking incident, animated scenes, and glowing language, the authors, conscious that their hearers were indifferent how these were introduced or tacked together, took no trouble in subjecting their genius to the controul of the rules of art. Ben Jonson, who alone, among the dramatists of that period, attempted to found a reputation upon understanding and submitting to the discipline of the ancient stage, had so little reason to be proud of his success, that he growls upon every occasion against the rude taste of an age, which preferred to his laboured and well-concocted scenes, the more glowing, wild, and irregular effusions of his less learned contemporaries. The mode, also, in which these plays were composed excludes the very idea of artful arrangement, or skilful coherence of parts. If the piece was happily the work of a single author, it was usually composed under such circumstances of hurry and negligence, as distinguish the daily labour, which toils for daily bread, from the more ambitious efforts, which propose fame alone for their object and reward. But it often happened that several poets clubbed their scattered and unconnected scenes to make up a single play; and the circumstance shews what very little consequence the union and consistency demanded upon the modern stage, held in the eyes of an audience in the former part of the sixteenth century. It is possible that, upon the whole, the drama (at least considered as a department of poetry) has profited by this relaxation of discipline; for, doubtless, some of our greatest authors inight have been deterred from engaging in dramatic composition, by the terror of such rigorous laws as were early submitted to by the French writers. On the other hand, viewing the subject with reference to theatrical representation only, we cannot suppress a natural regret, that out of so many plays, sparkling with scenes at once passionate and poetical, we have been able, under the principle of exclusion already explained, to select only a very few for the purpose of this collection. This imperfection is, however, remedied, by the publication of the Ancient Drama, upon the same plan with the following volumes; which contains an ample selection from the theatrical remains of that wonderful age, when the art, though only in its infancy, displayed a lustre of genius, which, however rude and irregular, has never been equalled in the maturer period of our theatrical history.
The pieces which we have selected as examples of the drama during this period are taken from the works of the most celebrated writers. Four of these are selected from the works of Beaumont and Fletcher; and the Publisher cannot but hope that the beautitul scenes which they exhibit will be a sufficient apology for the irregularity of the action.
In the Two Noble kinsmen, Shakespeare is supposed to have given bis assistance, and it contains passages abounding even in the higher class of his beauties. The inci