Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

high degree of refinement. But he is not weak; on the contrary, there is self-reliance, and a sort of stiff elasticity of nature shows itself. He has common, though very common sense, and writes verse as if he might be a good man of business.

The Human Life has many of the faults which belong to his early school. It is, moreover, a very incongruous whole. The life of man is described by tracing the career of an individual made up of Cincinnatus, Lord Russell, Epaminondas, and Mr. Fox; and who is represented, now at his plough, now in the senate, now breakfasting comfortably under "fragrant clouds of mocha and souchong," with his newspaper and all modern appliances, now rushing out with helmet and sword on a sudden cry of "to arms!" and dyeing a neighbouring stream with blood. But some of the detached pictures of life are full of graceful drawing, and forbid us to deny Mr. Rogers the claims of affectionate and tender, though not deep or passionate feeling. And he has this high claim to respect, that he is genuine, and never affects or strains after a deeper vein of sentiment than is natural to him. We have quoted him often for his defects, let us quote him once for his beauties:

"Nor many moons o'er hill and valley rise

Ere to the gate with nymph-like step she flies,
And their first-born holds forth, their darling boy,
With smiles how sweet, how full of love and joy,
To meet him coming; theirs through every year
Pure transports, such as each to each endear!
And laughing eyes and laughing voices fill
Their home with gladness. She, when all are still,
Comes and undraws the curtain as they lie,
In sleep how beautiful! He, when the sky
Gleams, and the wood sends up its harmony,
When, gathering round his bed, they climb to share
His kisses, and with gentle violence there
Break in upon a dream not half so fair,
Up to the hill-top leads their little feet;
Or by the forest-lodge, perchance to meet

The stag-herd on its march, perchance to hear
The otter rustling in the sedgy mere;

Or to the echo near the abbot's tree,

That gave him back his words of pleasantry

When the house stood, no merrier man than he!
And, as they wander with a keen delight,

If but a leveret catch their quicker sight

Down a green alley, or a squirrel then

Climb the gnarled oak, and look and climb again,—

If but a moth flit by, an acorn fall,

He turns their thoughts to Him who made them all;

These with unequal footsteps following fast,

These clinging by his cloak, unwilling to be last."

That Rogers has a charm of his own no one can deny. Yet it is not easy to define it. You seem to have it on the surface of

his poetry, and to lose it the moment you go deeper. It is the mark left by his peculiar power, which lay in a very uncommon refinement, perhaps a very rarely equalled refinement of taste and a keen exquisite sense of fitness: he had a wonderful control over all that belongs to words, except their meanings, and a marvellous art of arranging them so as to please both eye and ear, the former especially. Form is always uppermost with him, and the more so the more it is external; the traces of his power are found more in his verse and his diction than in his subject or his thoughts; and we have, as in his own Etruscan vases, wonderful grace and proportion of shape given to the commonest material. Utter poverty of thought is apparent in every page. A great poet pours wine into crystal vessels, Rogers occupies himself in staining them tastefully to hold toast-and-water. As we read him, we may stretch a point to say with Pope's father, "These be good verses;" but never can we say, "This is good poetry."

ART. VI. THE ENGLISH STAGE.

Catalogue of Dramatic Pieces, the property of the Members of the Dramatic Authors' Society or their representatives, made up to the 1st of February 1856.

ARTHUR MURPHY (as we learn from a passage of the lately-published Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers) used to say there were four estates in England-King, Lords, Commons, and the Theatres. Nobody nowadays, except an actor, would think of classing the theatres among our estates at all. Our fourth estate is the newspaper-press. The poor theatres have no such addition of honour, either literary or social. It is much if-in books at least, and by the fashionable mind-they are still allowed a place among public amusements. They are jostled out of credit even with humbler pleasure-seekers, by crystal palaces, scientific lectures, panoramas, ascents of Mont Blanc, polytechnic halls, free libraries, concerts, oratorios, muscums, and the opera. Nobody nowadays reads plays: few care to talk of seeing them. The critic's row no longer frowns tremendous with the Eacuses, Minoses, and Rhadamanthuses of the pit. The trunkmaker's knock is heard no more in the shilling-gallery. No wits gather in Strand taverns or Covent-Garden coffee-houses to decide, potent as a Vehm-gericht, the fate of play or actor. The public has abandoned even the privilege of damnation: Le théâtre est mort! And yet—“ Vive le théâtre !"

m

Some sixteen licensed play-houses still nightly open their doors to the world of London, from courtly St. James's to squalid Shoreditch and remotest Islington. Some ten or twelve hundred hard-working people-actors, singers, dancers, scenepainters, musicians, costumiers, machinists, property-men, sceneshifters, "supers," and all that indescribable tagrag and bobtail which hangs on to the skirts of theatrical enterprise-still gain hard-earned bread by holding the mirror up to nature, or by lackering, framing, cleaning, and repairing the said mirror. The List of Pieces belonging to Members of the Dramatic Authors' Society or their representatives, up to February 1856, now lying before us, shows some twelve hundred tragedies, comedies, dramas, melodramas, farces, interludes, burlettas, extravaganzas, burlesques, spectacles, or pantomimes. There are writers for the stage who still make a livelihood by the craft. Not a Theatrical-Fund dinner but can still secure the indispensable Lord of British charity to fill its chair. The daily newspapers continue to find room in their columns for accounts of the last new piece, and some Sunday prints contrive to fill whole broadsides with the most marvellous minutiae of even provincial theatrical intelligence-whence the reader may gather with pleasure that "Little Joe Eccles has been doing good business at StokeDamerel," and that "Slogger and his dogs are drawing immensely at Corbridge;" or grow sad to learn that "Thorne's troupe has been but indifferently patronised at Sowerby-Bridge; which is the more to be lamented, as Thorne has invariably provided a good class of legitimate entertainment, and the company comprises many old-established favourites." If we pass from the sovereign people to the sovereign-the Queen has her series of winter performances in the Rubens-room at Windwhile scarce a week passes but we learn that "her Majesty has honoured with her presence" the Olympic, the Princess's, or the Haymarket. Noble and rich follow the royal example. Who has not heard of the private theatricals of Woburn and Belvoir? And in hundreds of English country-houses-stately or snug, warm old Tudor or bran-new Elizabethan-if you could lift the roof, Asmodeus fashion, and peep in on the amusements of the winter, ten to one but you would find the best room in the house fitted with a proscenium, the ladies'-maids at work on costumes, Cumberland's Acting Drama littering the library tables,-in short, all signs of " a play toward" among the young people.

sor;

In truth, the stage is like the king-it never dies. It never can die, while there lives in men the impulse to embody emotion and incident in mimetic forms-the craving to project ourselves out of our daily life and habitual surroundings into new forms,

strange utterances, unfamiliar relations, passions stronger than society tolerates, and mirthfulness less marred by melancholy than real life supplies. All children are actors. Watch them in their little plays. The very word "play" has its significance, common, as it is, to the actor and the child. Childhood is one long drama, full of marvellous incident. It matters little whether its stage be a Spitalfields court or a ducal nursery. The scenery, machinery, and decorations in both are created by the glamour of that glorious imagination as yet undimmed by life and unchastened by experience, which can find Pactolus in a streetgutter, and make of the foulest cellar a very palace of delight.

The complaint that the drama is dead comes chiefly from old gentlemen, who remember the Kembles, and the O. P. riots ; and literary men, who are au fait at the Elizabethan repertory, but who never enter the theatre in the next street. But the drama is as alive as ever for those cherry-cheeked boys, and fair-haired little maidens, whose bright faces light up the Christmas box, and whose merry laughter sounds like a ring of silver bel's through the hoarser full-grown mirth of pit and gallery. The drama is as alive as ever for the hard-handed artisan and his neat wife, who, from their bench at Sadler's Wells, follow breathless the jealousy of Othello, or roar at the self-conceit of Bottom. Nor is the drama dead for even that blasé public of Oxford Street which trembles with the tremolo that ushers in the ghost of the Corsican brother, or scarce suppresses its shriek at the discovery of Mrs. Charles Kean hanging on to the door of the murder-vault in Pauline. Nor is the drama dead for the selecter audiences which chuckle over the unctuous humour of Keeley, or the inimitable homely realism of his better-half, or which follow Mr. Wigan through the unforced scenes of Still Waters run deep, or sit, like Garrick, between laughter and terror, to witness the farcical grimace, vehement passion, mad energy, and bewildering contrasts of Robson in the Yellow Dwarf or Prince Richcraft; nor for the coarser crowd which roars with Wright through a "screaming farce" at the Adelphi, or is convulsed by the quaint oddities of Buckstone at the Haymarket.

No; be assured the drama is quite alive. We who write about it have not to anatomise a 66 dead subject," but to examine the gait, features, movements, speech, and behaviour of a living body; a more difficult task, indeed, but a pleasanter one, than the dissector's. But, though it does not die, the drama is subject to metempsychosis. It takes as many forms as that hero of transmigration, Endor, so dear to our nurserydays: an uncouth and clumsy bantling, swaddled in a monk's frock, before the reign of Elizabeth;-at the beginning of that

reign a pedantic doctor, talking Latin, or latinised and scholastic English, in a master-of-arts' gown ;-by the end of that reign a young giant, sounding all mysteries of humanity, pouring forth with irrepressible fertility the most various and life-like creations; sounding the strings of the human heart, from its sharpest tones of pathos to its gladdest note of merriment; pressing into its service the most productive imaginations, the keenest wits, the sweetest voices of the time;-under James and Charles I. dwindling from the colossal dimensions of its prime, but still large of mould, and stately or sweet of utterance; during the Commonwealth a tattered cavalier, skulking from the puritan constables;-between the Restoration and the Revolution a debauched court-gallant, with a brave French suit on its back, cards and claret-flask in hand, chucking orange-girls under the chin, and exchanging smutty and reckless repartee with loose ladies in masks, in the Mall, or from the side-boxes ;-under Anne and the earlier Georges alternately a periwigged fop, or a dull prosy university-doctor, declaiming in toga, breeches, and full-bottomed wig;-through the Regency a rattling, sharping, sparkling "blood," with some wit and more slang, or else a mouther of clap-trap, a maudlin Wertherised retailer of German sentiment;-and in our time a motley masquerader, assuming in turn, and more or less weakly, all the shapes of its earlier transmigrations, but incapable, as yet, of moulding for itself a distinct and characteristic form.

It is not the purpose of this article to examine in detail the features of our national drama in each of these its leading phases. Our sketch is meant merely to support the observation, that the art of the stage is eminently an art of conditions, shaped by the pressure of the time. Because it has ceased to manifest its life in the form we like best, we must not conclude it is dead. Even the iron hand of Cromwell could do no more than suppress it. The moment his gripe was taken off, it sprang up more buoyant, if less beautiful, than before.

The most discouraging point about the stage of our own day is, that it seems as yet to have found no form of its own. We say "seems," for it may be that we are unable to measure aright the peculiarities of contemporary art. Critics of the next generation, judging ours in retrospect, and with all its relations under their eye, may discover, even in the stage-life of our degenerate day, something which distinguishes it from all the earlier forms of dramatic activity. They may prove its irregular and seemingly aimless strugglings to have been the pangs of birth, and not the twitchings of the dead-throe. At any rate, our stage, even for us, is worthy of more study than it has yet received. There has been abundant lamentation over it,-enough, and

« VorigeDoorgaan »