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AN

ESSAY

ON

THE DRAMA.

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE SUPPLEMENT TO THE ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA.

[1819.]

ESSAY ON THE DRAMA.

A DRAMA (we adopt Dr Johnson's definition, with some little extension) is a poem of fictitious composition in dialogue, in which the action is not related but represented.

A disposition to this fascinating amusement, considered in its rudest state, seems to be inherent in human nature. It is the earliest sport of children, to take upon themselves some fictitious character, and sustain it to the best of their skill, by such appropriate gestures and language, as their youthful fancies suggest, and such dress and decoration as circumstances place within their reach. The infancy of nations is as prone to this pastime as that of individuals. When the horde emerges out of a nearly brutal state, so far as to have holidays, public sports, and general rejoicings, the pageant of their imaginary deities, or of their fabulous ancestors, is usually introduced as the most pleasing and interesting part of the show. But however general the predisposition to the assumption of fictitious character may be, there is an immeasurable distance

betwixt the rude games in which it first displays itself, and that polished amusement which is numbered among the fine arts, which poetry, music, and painting, have vied to adorn, to whose service genius has devoted her most sublime efforts, while philosophy has stooped from her loftier task, to regulate the progress of the action, and give probability to the representation and personification of the scene.

The history of Greece-of that wonderful country, whose days of glory have left such a neverdying blaze of radiance behind them-the history of Greece affords us the means of correctly tracing the polished and regulated Drama, the subject of severe rule, and the vehicle for expressing the noblest poetry, from amusements as rude in their outline, as the mimic sports of children or of savages. The history of the Grecian stage is that of the dramatic art in general. They transferred the Drama, with their other literature, to the victorious Romans, with whom it rather existed as a foreign than flourished as a native art. Like the other fine arts, the stage sunk under the decay of the empire, and its fall was accelerated by the introduction of the Christian religion. In the middle ages dramatic representation revived, in the shape of the homely Mysteries and Moralities of our forefathers. The revival of letters threw light upon the scenic art, by making us acquainted with the pitch of perfection to which it had been carried by the genius of Greece. With this period commences the history of the modern stage, properly so called. Some general observations on the Drama, and the state

in which it now exists in Britain, will form a natural conclusion to the present Article.

The account which we have of the origin of Grecian theatrical representations, describes them as the fantastic orgies of shepherds and peasants, who solemnized the rites of Bacchus by the sacrifice of a goat, by tumultuous dances, and by a sort of masquerade, in which the actors were disguised like the ancient Morrice-dancers of England, or the Guisards of Scotland, who have not as yet totally disused similar revels. Instead of masks, their faces were stained with the lees of wine, and the songs and jests corresponded in coarseness to the character of the satyrs and fawns, which they were supposed to assume in honour of their patron Bacchus. Music, however, always formed a part of this rude festivity, and to this was sometimes added the recitations of an individual performer, who, possessed of more voice or talent than his companions, was able to entertain an audience for a few minutes by his own unaided exertions.

Out of such rude materials, Thespis is supposed to have been the first who framed something like an approach to a more regular entertainment. The actors under this, the first of theatrical managers, instead of running about wild among the audience, were exalted upon a cart, or upon a scaffold formed of boards laid upon trestles. In modern phrase, they were exalted from mere mummers into a company of mountebanks. In these improvements Thespis is supposed to have had the aid of one Susarion, whose efforts were more particularly direct

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