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follies of the lower part of mankind. Boileau, one of the best modern critics, asserts, that comedy will not admit of tragic distress :
Le comique, ennemi des soupirs et des pleurs,
Nor is this rule without the strongest foundation in nature, as the distresses of the mean by no means affect us so strongly as the calamities of the great. When tragedy exhibits to us some great man fallen from his height, and struggling with want and adversity, we feel his situation in the same manner, as we suppose he himself must feel, and our pity is increased in proportion to the height from which he fell. On the contrary, we do not so strongly sympathize with one born in humbler circumstances, and encountering accidental distress : so that while we melt for Belisarius, we scarcely give halfpence to the beggar who accosts us in the street. The one has our pity ; the other our contempt. Distress, therefore, is the proper object of tragedy, since the great excite our pity by their fall ; but not equally so of comedy, since the actors employed in it are originally so mean, that they sink but little by their fall.
Since the first origin of the stage, tragedy and comedy have run in distinct channels, and never till of late encroached upon the provinces of each other. Terence, who seems to have made the nearest approaches, always judiciously stops short before he comes to the downright pathetic ; and yet he is even reproached by Cæsar for wanting the vis comica. All the other comic writers of antiquity aim only at rendering folly or vice ridiculous, but never exalt their characters into buskined pomp, or make what Voltaire humorously calls a tradesman's tragedy.
Yet notwithstanding this weight of authority, and the universal practice of former ages, a new species of dramatic composition has been introduced, under the name of sentimental comedy, in which the virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed ; and the distresses rather than the faults of mankind make our interest in the piece. These comedies have had of late great success, perhaps from their novelty, and also from their flattering every man in his favourite foible. In these plays almost all the characters are good, and exceedingly generous ; they are lavish enough of their tin money on the stage ; and though they want humour, have abundance of sentiment and feeling. If they happen to have faults or foibles, the spectator is taught, not only to pardon, but to applaud them, in consideration of the goodness of their hearts ; so that folly, instead of being ridiculed, is commended, and the comedy aims at touching our passions without the power of being truly pathetic. In this manner we are likely to lose one great source of entertainment on the stage ; for while the comic poet is invading the province of the tragic muse, he leaves her lovely sister quite neglected. Of this, however, he is no way solicitous, as he measures his fame by his profits.
But it will be said, that the theatre is formed to amuse mankind, and that it matters little, if this end be answered, by what means it is obtained. If mankind find delight in weeping at comedy, it would be cruel to abridge them in that or any other innocent pleasure. If those pieces are denied the name of comedies, yet call them by any other name, and if they are delightful, they are good. Their success, it will be said, is a mark of their merit, and it is only abridging our happiness to deny us an inlet to amusement.
These objections, however, are rather specious than solid. It is true, that amusement is a great object of the theatre, and it will be allowed that these sentimental pieces do often amuse us ; but the question is, whether the true comedy would not amuse us more? The question is, whether a character supported throughout a piece with its ridicule still attending, would not give us more delight than this species of bastard tragedy, which only is applauded because it is new?
A friend of mine, who was sitting unmoved at one of these sentimental pieces, was asked how he could be so indifferent ? " Why, truly,” says he, “as the hero is but a tradesman, it is indifferent to me whether he be turned out of his counting-house on Fish-street Hill, since he will still have enough left to open shop in St Giles's.”
The other objection is as ill-grounded ; for though we should give these pieces another name, it will not mend their efficacy. It will continue a kind of mulish production, with all the defects of its opposite parents, and marked with sterility; If we are permitted to make comedy weep, we have an equal right to make tragedy laugh, and to set down in blank verse the jests and repartees of all the attendants in a funeral procession.
But there is one argument in favour of sentimental comedy, which will keep it on the stage, in spite of all that can be said against it. It is, of all others, the most easily written. Those abilities that can hammer out a novel, are fully sufficient for the production of a sentimental comedy. It is only sufficient to raise the characters a little ; to deck out the hero with a ribbon, or give the heroine a title ; then to put an insipid dialogue, without character or humour, into their mouths, give them mighty good hearts, very fine clothes, furnish a new set scenes, make a pathetic scene or two, with a sprinkling of tender melancholy conversation through the whole, and there is no doubt but all the ladies will cry, and all the gentlemen applaud.
Humour at present seems to be departing from the stage, and it will soon happen that our comic players will have nothing left for it but a fine coat and a song: It depends upon the audience whether they will actually drive those poor merry creatures from the stage, or sit at a play as gloomy as at the tabernacle. It is not easy to recover an art when once lost ; and it will be but a just punishment, that when, by our being too fastidious, we have banished humour from the stage, we should ourselves be deprived of the art of laughing.*
As I see you are fond of gallantry, and seem willing to set young people together as soon as you can, I cannot help lending my assistance to your endeavours, as I am greatly
* Dennis accused Addison of poisoning the town with false criticism, previous to the appearance of his tragedy of Cato, that tħe public might be prepared to give it a favourable reception. A malicious critic might think himself entitled to bring a similar charge against Goldsmith, as he wrote this essay, which contains such severe strictures on the sentimental comedy which was at that time very popular, immediately before the appearance of his own comedy, She Stoops to Conquer, a production which, with all its merits, may be said to encroach a little too much on the province of farce. It must be admitted, however, that his strictures on the fashionable comedy of the day are just ; though he unduly limits the province of true comedy when he says that “low life and middle life are entirely its object."-B.
concerned in the attempt. You must know, sir, that I am landlady of one of the most noted inns on the road to Scotland, and have seldom less than eight or ten couples a-week, who go down rapturous lovers, and return man and wife.
If there be in this world an agreeable situation, it must be that in which a young couple find themselves, when just let loose from confinement, and whirling off to the land of promise. When the post-chaise is driving off, and the blinds are drawn up, sure nothing can equal it. And yet, I do not know how, what with the fears of being pursued, or the wishes for greater happiness, not one of my customers but seems gloomy and out of temper. The gentlemen are all sullen, and the ladies discontented.
But if it be so going down, how is it with them coming back? Having been for a fortnight together, they are then mighty good company to be sure.
It is then the young lady's indiscretion stares her in the face, and the gentleman himself finds that much is to be done before the money comes in.
For my own part, sir, I was married in the usual way ; all
my friends were at the wedding ; I was conducted with great ceremony from the table to the bed ; and I do not find that it any ways diminished my happiness with my husband, while, poor
man! he continued with me. For my part, I am entirely for doing things in the old family way ; I hate your new-fashioned manners, and never loved an outlandish marriage in my life.
As I have had numbers call at my house, you may be sure I was not idle in inquiring who they were, and how they did in the world after they left me. I cannot say that I ever heard much good come of them : and of a history of twenty-five that I noted down in my ledger, I do not know a single couple that would not have been full as happy if they had gone the plain way to work, and asked the consent of their parents. To convince you of it, I will mention the names of a few, and refer the rest to some fitter opportunity.
Imprimis, Miss Jenny Hastings went down to Scotland with a tailor, who, to be sure, for a tailor, was a very agreeable sort of a man. But I do not know how, he did not take proper measure of the young lady’s disposition : they quarrelled at my house on their return ; so she left him for a cornet of dragoons, and he went back to his shop-board.
Miss Rachel Runfort went off with a grenadier. They spent all their money going down ; so that he carried her down in a post-chaise, and coming back, she helped to carry his knapsack.
Miss Racket went down with her lover in their own phaeton ; but upon their return, being very fond of driving, she would be every now and then for holding the whip. This bred a dispute ; and before they were a fortnight together, she felt that he could exercise the whip on somebody else besides the horses.
Miss Meekly, though all compliance to the will of her lover, could never reconcile him to the change of his situation. It seems he married her supposing she had a large fortune ; but being deceived in their expectations, they parted ; and they now keep separate garrets in Rosemary Lane. *
The next couple of whom I have any account, actually lived together in great harmony and uncloying kindness for no less than a month ; but the lady, who was a little in years, having parted with her fortune to her dearest life, he left her to make love to that better part of her which he valued
The next pair consisted of an Irish fortune-hunter, and one of the prettiest modestest ladies that ever my eyes beheld. As he was a well-looking gentleman, all dressed in lace, and as she seemed very fond of him, I thought they were blest for life. Yet I was quickly mistaken. The lady was no better than a common woman of the town, and he was no better than a sharper ; so they agreed upon a mutual divorce : he now dresses at the York Ball, and she is in keeping by the member for our borough in Parliament.
In this manner we see that all those marriages, in which there is interest on one side, and disobedience on the other, are not likely to promise a long harvest of delights. If our fortune-hunting gentlemen would but speak out, the young lady, instead of a lover, would often find a sneaking rogue, that only wanted the lady's purse, and not her heart. For my own part, I never saw any thing but design and falsehood in every one of them ; and my blood has boiled in my veins, when I saw a young fellow of twenty kneeling at the feet of
* Goldsmith very frequently borrows from his own writings. Several of the incidents recorded here are introduced in the Landlady's speech in the Good-Natured Man.-B.