Page images

ment, to which I have but little respect myself. I have not thought often on theatric performances, and of late not at all. A chief ground of my observations on your piece proceeded from having taken notice that an English audience is apt to be struck with some familiar sound, though there is nothing ridiculous in the passage, and fall into a foolish laugh, that often proves fatal to the author. Such was my objection to hot-cockles. You have indeed convinced me that I did not enough attend to your piece, as a farce; and, you must excuse me, my regard for you and your wit made me consider it rather as a short comedy. Very probably too, I have retained the pedantic impressions of the French, and demanded more observance of their rules than is necessary or just : yet I myself have often condemned their too delicate rigor. Nay, I have wished that farce and speaking harlequins were more encouraged ; in order to leave open a wider field of invention to writers for the stage. Of late I have amply had my wish : Mr. O'Keefe has brought our audiences to bear with every extravagance; and, were there not such irresistible humor in his utmost daring, it would be impossible to deny that he has passed even beyond the limits of nonsense. But I confine this approbation to his Agreeable Surprise. In his other pieces there is much more untempered nonsense than humor. Even that favorite performance, I wondered that Mr. Colman dared to produce.

Your remark, that a piece full of marked characters would be void of nature, is most just. This is so strongly my opinion, that I thought it a great fault in Miss Burney's Ceciliu, though it has a thousand other beauties, that she has labored far too much to make all her personages talk always in character; whereas, in the present refined or depraved state of human nature, most people endeavor to conceal their real character, not to display it. A professional man, as a pedantic fellow of a college or a seaman, has a characteristic dialect; but that is very different from continually letting out his ruling passion.

This brings me, Sir, to the alteration you offer in the personage of Mrs. Winter, whom


wittily propose to turn into a mermaid. I approve the idea much: I like too the restoration of Mrs. Vernon to a plain reasonable woman.

She will be a contrast to the bad characters, and but a gradation to produce Barbara, without making her too glaringly bright without any intermediate shade. In truth, as you certainly may write excellently if you please, I wish you to bestow your utmost abilities on whatever you give to the public. I am wrong when I would have a farce as chaste and sober as a comedy; but I would have a farce made as good as it can be. I do not know how that is to be accomplished; but I believe you do. You are so obliging as to offer to accept a song of mine, if I have one by me. Dear Sir, I have no more talent for writing a song than for writing an ode like Dryden's or Gray's. It is a talent per se, and given, like every other branch of genius, by nature alone. Poor Shenstone was laboring through his whole life to write a perfect song, and, in my opinion at least, never once suc

ceeded; not better than Pope did in a St. Ceci-
lian ode. I doubt whether we have not gone a
long, long way beyond the possibility of writing a
good song. All the words in the language have
been so often employed on simple images (with-
out which a song cannot be good), and such reams
of bad verses have been produced in that kind,
that I question whether true simplicity itself could
please now. At least we are not likely to have
any such thing. Our present choir of poetic vir-
gins write in the other extreme. They color their
compositions so highly with choice and dainty
phrases, that their own dresses are not more fan-
tastic and romantic. Their nightingales make as
many divisions as Italian singers. But this is
wandering from the subject; and, while I only
meant to tell you what I could not do myself, I
am telling you what others do ill.
hazard one other opinion, though relative to com-
position in general. There are two periods favor-
able to poets : a rude age, when a genius may
hazard any thing, and when nothing has been
forestalled : the other is, when, after ages of bar-
barism and incorrection, a master or two produces
models formed by purity and taste : Virgil, Ho-
race, Boileau, Corneille, Racine, Pope, exploded
the licentiousness that reigned before them. What
happened? Nobody dared to write in contradic-
tion to the severity established; and very few
had abilities to rival their masters. Insipidity
ensues, novelty is dangerous, and bombast usurps
the throne which had been debased by a race of
fainéants. This rhapsody will probably convince

I will yet

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

you, Sir, how much you was mistaken in setting any value on my judgment.

February will certainly be time enough for your piece to be finished. I again beg you, Sir, to pay no deference to my criticisms against your own cool reflections. It is prudent to consult others before one ventures on publication ; but every single person is as liable to be erroneous as an author. An elderly man, as he gains experience, acquires prejudices too: nay, old age has generally two faults ; it is too quick-sighted into the faults of the time being, and too blind to the faults that reigned in his own youth, which, having partaken of or having admired, though injudiciously, he recollects with complaisance.

I confess too that there must be two distinct views in writers for the stage, one of which is more allowable to them than to other authors. The one is durable fame; the other, peculiar to dramatic authors, the view of writing to the present taste (and, perhaps, as you say, to the level of the audience). I do not mean for the sake of profit; but even high comedy must risk a little of its immortality by consulting the ruling taste ; and thence comedy always loses some of its beauties, the transient, and some of its intelligibility. Like its harsher sister, satire, many of its allusions must vanish, as the objects it aims at correcting cease to be in vogue; and, perhaps, that cessation, the natural death of fashion, is often ascribed by an author to his own reproofs. Ladies would have left off patching on the Whig or Tory side of

their face,* though Mr. Addison had not written his excellent Spectator. Probably even they who might be corrected by his reprimand, adopted some new distinction as ridiculous; not discovering that his satire was levelled at their partial animosity, and not at the mode of placing their patches; for, unfortunately, as the world cannot be cured of being foolish, a preacher who eradicates one folly, does but make room for some other.



Oct. 27th, 1784.

I would not answer your letter, Sir, till I could tell you that I had put your play into Mr. Colman's hands, which I have done. He desired my consent to his carrying it into the country to read it deliberately: you shall know as soon as I receive his determination.

I am much obliged to you for the many civil and kind expressions in your letter, and for the friendly information you give me. Partiality, I fear, dictated the former ; but the last I can only ascribe to the goodness of your heart.

• The singularly clever and witty paper here alluded to was written by Mr. Addison himself: it is No. 81, and was published June 2nd, 1711.

+ This letter is printed, but not accurately, in the 4th Vol. of the Private Correspondence of The Hon. Horace Walpole, p. 384, under date of March 17th, 1785.

« PreviousContinue »