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A WORD OR TWO ON THE LATE FARCE,
HIGH LIFE BELOW STAIRS.
JUST as I had expected, before I saw this farce, I found it formed on too narrow a plan to afford a pleasing variety. The sameness of the humour in every scene could not but at last fail of being disagreeable. The poor, affecting the manners of the rich, might be carried on through one character or two at the most with great propriety; but to have almost every personage on the scene almost of the same character, and reflecting the follies of each other, was unartful in the poet to the last degree.
The scene was also almost a continuation of the same absurdity; and my lord duke and sir Harry (two footmen who assume these characters) have nothing else to do but to talk like their masters, and are only introduced to speak, and to show themselves. Thus, as there is a sameness of character, there is a barrenness of incident, which, by a very small share of address, the poet might have easily avoided.
From a conformity to critic rules, which perhaps on the whole have done more harm than good, our author has sacrificed all the vivacity of the dialogue to nature; and though he makes his characters talk like servants, they are seldom absurd enough, or lively enough to make us merry. Though he is always natural, he happens seldom to be humorous.
The satire was well intended, if we regard it as being masters ourselves; but probably a philosopher would rejoice in that liberty which Englishmen give
their domestics; and for my own part I cannot avoid being pleased at the happiness of those poor creatures, who in some measure contribute to mine. The Athenians, the politest and best-natured people upon earth, were the kindest to their slaves; and if a person may judge, who has seen the world, our English servants are the best treated, because the generality our English gentlemen are the politest under the sun
But not to lift my feeble voice among the pack of critics, who probably have no other occupation but that of cutting up every thing new, I must own, there are one or two scenes that are fine satire, and suffi ciently humorous; particularly the first interview be tween the two footmen, which at once ridicules the manners of the great, and the absurdity of their imi
Whatever defects there might be in the composi tion, there were none in the action; in this the perfor mers showed more humour than I had fancied them capable of. Mr. Palmer and Mr. King were entirely what they desired to represent: and Mrs Clive (but what need I talk of her, since without the least exaggeration she has more true humour than any actor or actress upon the English or any other stage I have seen); she, I say, did the part all the justice it was capable of. And upon the whole a farce, which has only this to recommend it, that the author took his plan from the volume of nature, by the sprightly manner in which it was performed, was for one night a tolerable entertainment. Thus much may be said in its vindication, that people of fashion seemed more pleased in the representation than the subordinate ranks of people.
UPON UNFORTUNATE MERIT.
EVERY age seems to have its favourite pursuits, which serve to amuse the idle, and relieve the attention of the industrious. Happy the man who is born excellent in the pursuit in vogue, and whose genius seems adapted to the times in which he lives. How many do we see, who might have excelled in arts or sciences, and who seem furnished with talents equal to the greatest discoveries, had the road not been already beaten by their predecessors, and nothing left for them, except trifles to discover, while others of very moderate abilities become famous, because happening to be first in the reigning pursuit!
Thus, at the renewal of letters in Europe, the taste was not to compose new books, but to comment on the old ones. It was not to be expected that new books should be written, when there were so many of the ancients either not known or not undersood. It was not reasonable to attempt new conquests, while they had such an extensive region lying waste for want of cultivation. At that period criticism and erudition were the reigning studies of the times; and he, who had only an inventive genius, might have languished in hopeless obscurity. When the writers of antiquity were sufficiently explained and known, the learned set about imitating them: hence proceeded the number of Latin orators, poets, and historians in the reigns of Clement the seventh and Alexander the sixth. This passion for antiquity lasted for many years, to the utter exclusion of every other pursuit, till some began to find, that those works which were imitated from nature, were more like the writings of antiquity, than even those written in express imitation. It was then modern language began to be cultivated with assiduity,
and our poets and orators poured forth their wonders upon the world.
As writers become more numerous, it is natural for readers to become more indolent; whence must necessarily arise a desire of attaining knowledge with the greatest possible ease. No science or art offers its instruction and amusement in so obvious a manner as statuary and painting. Hence we see, that a desire of cultivating those arts generally attends the decline of science. Thus the finest statues and the most beautiful paintings of antiquity preceded but a little the absolute decay of every other science. The statues of Antoninus, Comodus, and their cotemporaries, are the finest productions of the chissel, and appeared but just before learning was destroyed by comment, criticism, and barbarous invasions.
What happened in Rome may probably be the case with us at home. Our nobility are now more solicitous in patronizing painters and sculptors than those of any other polite profession; and from the lord, who has his gallery, down to the 'prentice, who has his two-penny copper-plate, all are admirers of this art. The great, by their caresses, seem insensible to all other merit but that of the pencil; and the vulgar buy every book ra ther from the excellence of the sculptor than the writer. How happy were it now, if men of real excellence in that profession were to arise! Were the painters of Italy now to appear, who once wandered like beg. gars from one city to another, and produce their almost breathing figures, what rewards might they not expect! But many of them lived without rewards, and therefore rewards alone will never produce their equals. We have often found the great exert themselves not only without promotion, but in spite of opposition. We have often found them flourishing, like medical plants in a region of savageness and barbarity, their excellence unknown, and their virtues unheeded.
They who have seen the paintings of Caravagio are sensible of the surprising impression they make; bold, swelling, terrible to the last degree; all seems animated, and speaks him among the foremost of his profession yet this man's fortune and his fame seemed ever in opposition to each other.
Unknowing how to flatter the great, he was driven from city to city in the utmost indigence, and might truly be said to paint for his bread.
Having one day insulted a person of distinction, who refused to pay him all the respect which he thought his due, he was obliged to leave Rome, and travel on foot, his usual method of going his journies down into the country, without either money or friends to subsist him.
After he had travelled in this manner as long as his strength would permit, faint with famine and fatigue, he at last called at an obscure inn by the way side. The host knew, by the appearance of his guest, his indifferent circumstances, and refused to furnish him a dinner without previous payment.
As Caravagio was entirely destitute of money, he took down the innkeeper's sign, and painted it anew for his dinner.
Thus refreshed he proceeded on his journey, and left the innkeeper not quite satisfied with this method of payment. Some company of distinction, however, coming soon after, and struck with the beauty of the new sign, bought it at an advanced price, and astonished the innkeeper with their generosity; he was resolved, therefore, to get as many signs as possible drawn by the same artist, as he found he could sell them to good advantage; and accordingly set out after Caravagio, in order to bring him back. It was night-fall before he came up to the place, where the unfortunate Caravagio lay dead by the road side, overcome by fatigue, resentment, and despair.