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The affectation of elaborate art is certainly among the falfe refinements of the modern Stage. The first mafters in theatrical representations made use of a diction, which united the harmony of verfe to the easy and natural air of profe, and was fuited to the movement and bustle of Action, being confidered only as fubfervient to the Fable, and not as the principal object of the Poet or the Audience.
The firft endeavour of the Poet fhould be to touch the heart, the next to mend it. What would the ancients fay, who would not fuffer even the inarticulate founds of mufic to utter tones that might enervate the mind, if they could hear the stage, from whence iffued precepts that awakened the Magifirate, animated the Chief, and improved the Citizen, now giving leffons of Love; and the dramatic art, no longer attempting to purge the paffions by Pity and Terror, but by false delicacy divested of its power, and diverted from its end, melting away
away in the ftrains of Elegy and Eclogue? May we not venture to affirm fuch refinements to be rather abuse and degeneracy, than advances towards perfection? These Poets have plainly neglected the moral ends which were the object of the Drama; and the manner of conducting their Tragedy seems no less a deviation from that which the great Poets practifed, and the best Critics taught. If they have avoided monftrous errors and abfurdities, it is but the common privilege of Mediocrity to do fo; but let not Mediocrity affume the airs and prefumption of Excellence and Perfection, nor pretend to obtrude on others, as rules, any fantastical forms which affectation or fashion may have imposed on them.
It cannot be denied, but there should be fome compliance with the change of manners and opinions. Our Delicacy would be justly offended, if the loud groans and nauseous wounds of Philoctetes were imitated on the Stage; but would Good fenfe be less offended,
fended, if, in the conduct of the play, his fierce resentments of his wrongs, the noble frankness of the son of Achilles, and the crafty wiles of Ulyffes, which are so finely exhibited in the Tragedy of Sophocles, and fo deeply interest us, in the difpute for the arrows, were all neglected, in order to engage our attention to fome love-fcenes between Neoptolemus, and a fair nymph of Lemnos? Would the Poet be excused by pleading the effeminacy and gallantry of an audience, who would not endure fo unpleafing an object as a wounded man, nor attend to any contest but about a heart? In fuch a country the lyre fhould warble melting ftrains but let not example teach us to fetter the energy, and enervate the noble powers of the British mufe, and of a language fit to exprefs fublimer fentiments. The bleeding, fightless eyes of dipus are objects of too great horror for the spectator; but is not Thefeus, in the midft of plagues and famine, adoring les beaux yeux of the princess Dirce as much an object of ridicule?
Fine dialogues of love, interwoven with a tale of inceft and murder, would not have been endured in any country, where taste had not been abfolutely perverted. Mr. Voltaire has the candor to own, this is a bad Tragedy; but Corneille tells us, it was his good fortune to find it the general opinion, that none of his pieces was compofed with more art; fo little was the dramatic art understood in the polite court of Louis XIV. The dipus of Corneille is fo far below criticism, that I should not have taken any notice of it but as it was neceffary to bring a ftrong proof of the depravity of taste in those times.
Mr. Voltaire has endeavoured to convince his countrymen, that the metaphyfics of love, and the fophiftry of politics, are not adapted to the Theatre: but he durft not bring the story of Edipus on the Stage without the addition of a love-intrigue; and Philoctetes, the companion of Hercules, is introduced fighing for
for the autumnal charms of Jocafta. One may surely fay with her,
D'un lien charmant le foin tendre & timide
Tragedy thus converted into mere amorous ditty, drops all the ends of her inftitution, which were, fays Sir P. Sidney*, 86 to open the greatest wounds, and to fhew "forth the ulcers that are covered with "tiffue; to make kings fear to be tyrants, « tyrants to manifeft their tyrannical humours; that stirring the effects of admi"ration and commiferation, teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how "weak foundations gilded roofs are build"ed; that maketh us know, qui fceptra "fævus duro imperio regit, timet timentes, "metus in autorem redit." The example to the great; the warnings to the people; all high and public precepts are neglected; and by making the interest of the play turn • Defence of Poefy.