« PreviousContinue »
M. Fontenelle's reasoning is much more conclusive; yet I think he errs egregiously in his premises, if he means to imply that any modulation of pain is pleasing; because, in whatever degree it may be, it is still pain, and remote from either ease or positive pleasure; and if, by moderated pain, he means any uneasy sensation abated, though not totally banished, he is no less mistaken in the application of them to the subject before us.-Pleasure may very well be conceived to be painful, when carried to excess, because it there becomes exertion, and is inconvenient. We may also form some idea of a pleasure arising from moderated pain, or the transition from the disagreeable to the less disagreeable; but this cannot in any wise be applied to the gratification we derive from a tragedy, for there no superior degree of pain is felt for an inferior. As to Mr. Hume's addition of the pleasure we derive from the art of the poet, for the introduction of which he has written his whole dissertation on tragedy, it merits little consideration. The self-recollection necessary to render this art a source of gratification, must weaken the illusion; and whatever weakens the illusion diminishes the effect.
In these systems it is taken for granted, that all those passions are excited which are represented in the drama. This I conceive to have been the primary cause of error; for to me it seems very probable that the only passion or affection which is excited, is that of sympathy, which partakes of the pleasing nature of pity and compassion, and includes in it so much as is pleasing of hope and apprehension, joy and grief.
The pleasure we derive from the afflictions of a friend is proverbial-every person has felt, and wondered why he felt, something soothing in the participation of the sorrows of those dear to his heart; and he might with
as much reason have questioned why he was delighted with the melancholy scenes of a tragedy. Both pleasures are equally singular; they both arise from the same source: both originate in sympathy.
It would seem natural that an accidental spectator of a cause in a court of justice, with which he is perfectly unacquainted, would remain an uninterested auditor of what was going forward. Experience tells us, however, the exact contrary. He immediately, even before he is well acquainted with the merits of the case, espouses one side of the question, to which he uniformly adheres, participates in all its advantages, and sympathizes in its success. There is no denying that the interest this man takes in the business is a source of pleasure to him; but we cannot suppose one of the parties in the cause, though his interest must be infinitely more lively, to feel an equal pleasure, because the painful passions are in him really roused, while in the other sympathy alone is excited, which is in itself pleasing. It is pretty much the same with the spectator of a tragedy. And, if the sympathy is the more pleasing, it is because the actions are so much the more calculated to entrap the attention, and the object so much the more worthy. The pleasure is heightened also in both instances by a kind of intuitive recollection, which never forsakes the spectator, that no bad consequences will result to him from the action he is surveying. The recollection is the more predominant to the spectator of a tragedy, as it is impossible in any case totally to banish from his memory that the scenes are fictitious and illusive. In real life we always advert to futurity, and endeavour to draw inferences of the probable consequences; but the moment we take off our minds from what is passing on the stage to reason
ings thereupon, the illusion is dispelled, and it again recurs that it is all fiction.
If we compare the degrees of pleasure we derive from the perusal of a novel, and the representation of a tragedy, we shall observe a wonderful disparity. In both we feel an interest, in both sympathy is excited. But in the one, things are merely related to us as having passed, which it is not attempted to persuade us ever did in reality happen, and from which, therefore, we never can deceive ourselves into the idea that any consequence whatever will result; in the other, on the contrary, the actions themselves pass before our eyes; we are not tempted to ask ourselves whether they did ever happen: we see them happen, we are the witnesses of them; and were it not for the meliorating circumstances before mentioned, the sympathy would become so powerful as to be in the highest degree painful.
In tragedy, therefore, every thing which can strengthen the illusion should be introduced, for there are a thousand drawbacks on the effect, which it is impossible to remove, and which have always so great a force, as to put it out of the power of the poet to excite sympathy in a too painful degree. Every thing that is improbable, every thing which is out of the common course of nature, should, for this reason, be avoided, as nothing will so forcibly remind the spectator of the unrealness of the illusion.
It is a mistaken idea, that we sympathize sooner with the distresses of kings and illustrious personages, than with those of common life. Men are, in fact, more inclined to commiserate the sufferings of their equals, than of those whom they cannot but regard rather with awe than pity, as superior beings, and to take an interest in incidents which might have happened to them
selves sooner than in those remote from their own rank and habits. It is, for this reason that Eschylus censures Euripides for introducing his kings in rags, as if they were more to be compassionated than other men: Πρῶτον μὲν τοὺς βασιλεύοντας ῥάκιαμπισχων, ἵν ἐν ἐλεεινοὶ Τοῖς ἀνθρῶπος φαίνοντ ̓ εἶναι.
Some will, perhaps, imagine, that it is in the power of the poet to excite our sympathy in too powerful a degree, because, at the representation of certain scenes, the spectators are frequently affected so as to make them shriek out with terror. But this is not sympathy; it is horror, it is disgust, and is only witnessed when some act is committed on the stage so cruel and bloody, as to make it impossible to contemplate it, even in idea, without horror.
Nec pueros coram populo Medea trucidet,
Aut humana palàm coquat exta nefarius Atreus.
Hor. Ar's Poet. l. 185.
It is for this reason, also, that many fine German dramas cannot be brought on the English stage, such as the Robbers of Schiller, and the Adelaide of Wulfingen, by Kotzebue: they are too horrible to be read without violent emotions, and Horace will tell you what an immense difference there is in point of effect between a relation and a representation:
Segnius irritant animos demissa per aurem,
I shall conclude these desultory remarks, strung together at random, without order or connexion, by observing what little foundation there is for the general outcry in the literary world, against the prevalence of German dramas on our stage. Did they not possess
uncommon mérit, they would not meet with such general approbation. Fashion has but a partial influence, but they have drawn tears from an audience in a barn as well as in a theatre royal; they have been welcomed with plaudits in every little market-town in the three kingdoms, as well as in the metropolis. Nature speaks but one language; she is alike intelligible to the peasant and the man of letters, the tradesman and the man of fashion. While the Muse of Germany shall continue to produce such plays as the Stranger and Lovers' Vows,* who will not rejoice that translation is able to naturalize her efforts in our language?
There is a mood
(I sing not to the vacant and the young),
There is a kindly mood of Melancholy,
That wings the soul and points her to the skies.-Dyer. PHILOSOPHERS have divested themselves of their natural apathy, and poets have risen above themselves, in descanting on the pleasures of Melancholy. There is no mind so gross, no understanding so uncultivated, as to be incapable, at certain moments, and amid certain combinations, of feeling that sublime influence upon the spirits which steals the soul from the petty anxieties of the world,
And fits it to hold converse with the gods.'
I must confess, if such there be who never felt the
* I speak of these plays only as adapted to our stage by the elegant pens of Mr. Thompson, and Mrs. Inchbald.