« PreviousContinue »
part of its excellence, in comparison of a gloss of pleafantry diffused over each scene, which is more the happy effect of a lucky moment, than of long consideration.
These objections, and many others, which so fruitful a subject might easily suggest, it is not difficult to refute : and if we were to judge by the impression made on the mind by tragedies and comedies of equal excellence, perhaps, when we examine those impressions, it will be found that a sally of pleasantry, which diverts all the world, required more thought than a passage which gave the highest pleasure in tragedy; and to this determination we shall be more inclined when a closer examination shall few us, that a happy vein of tragedy is opened and esfused at less expence, than a well-placed witticism in comedy has required merely to aflign its place.
It would be too much to dwell long upon such a digresion; and as I have no business to decide the question, I leave both that and my arguments to the tafte of each particular reader, who will find what is to be said for or against it. My purpose was only to say of comedy, considered as a work of genius, all that a man of letters can be supposed to deliver without departing from his character, and without palliating in any degree the corrupt use which has been almost always made of an exhibition which in its nature might be innocent ; but has been vicious from the time that it has been infected with the wickedness of men. It is not for public exhibitions that I am now writing, but for literary inquiries. The stage is too much frequented, and books too much neglected. Yet it is to the literature of Greece
and Rome that we are indebted for that valuable taste, which will be insensibly lost by the affected negligence which now prevails of having recourse to originals. If reason has been a considerable gainer, it must be confessed that taste has been somewhat a loser.
To return to Aristophanes : so many great men of antiquity, through a long succession of ages, down to our times, have set a value upon his works, that we cannot naturally suppose them contemptible, notwithstanding the essential faults with which he may be justly reproached. It is sufficient to say, that he was esteemed by Plato and Cicero ; and to conclude by that which does him moft honour, but still falls- short of justification, the strong and sprightly eloquence of St. Chryfoftom drew its support from the masculine and vigorous atticism of this sarcastic comedian, to whom the father paid the same regard as Alexander to Homer, that of putting his works under his pillow, that he might read them at night before he slept, and in the morning as soon as he awaked.
BRUMO Y's GREEK THEATRE.
Summary of the I. HUS I have given a fạithful four articles trcated of in this
extract of the remains of Ariftodiscourse.
phanes. That I have not shewn them in their true form, I am not afraid that any body will complain. I have given an account of every thing as far as it was consistent with moral decency. No pen, however cynical or heathenilh, would venture to produce in open day the horrid passages which I have put out of fight; and instead of regretting any part that I have suppressed, the very suppression will easily shew to what degree the Athenians were infected with licentiousness of imagination and corruption of principles. If the taste of antiquity allows us to preserve what time and barbarity have hitherto spared, religion and virtue at least oblige us not to spread it before the eyes of mankind. To end this work in an useful manner, let us examine in a few words the four particulars which are most striking in the eleven pieces of Aristophanes.
II. The first is the character of the Character of ancient come- ancient comedy, which has no likeness dy. to any thing in nature. Its genius is so wild and strange, that it scarce admits a definition. In what class of comedy must we place it? It appears to me to be a species of writing by itself. If we had Pbrynicus, Plata, Eupolis, Critinus, Ameipfias, and so many other celebrated rivals of Aristophanes, of whom all that we can find are a few fragments scattered in Plutarch, Athenias and Suidas, we might compare them with our poet, fettle the general scheme, observe the minuter differences, and form a complete notion of their comic stage. But for want of all this we can fix only on Aristophanes, and it is true that he may be in some measure sufficient to furnish a tolerable judgment of the old comedy; for if we believe him, and who can be better credited ? he was the most daring of all his brechren the poets, who practised the same kind of writing. Upon this supposition we may conclude, that the .comedy of those days consisted in an allegory drawn out and continued ; an allegory never very regular, but often ingenious, and almost always carried beyond strict propriety, of satire keen and biting, but diversified, sprightly, and unexpected; fo that the wound was given before it was perceived. Their points of satire were thunderbolts, and their wild figures, with their variety and quickness, had the effect of lightning. Their imitation was carried even to resemblance of persons, and their common entertainments was a parody of rivad poets joined, if I may so express it, with a parody of manners and habits.
But it would be tedious to draw out to the reader that which he will already have perceived better than myself. I have no design to anticipate his reflections; and there
fore shall only sketch the picture, which he must finish by himself: he will pursue the subject farther, and form to himself a view of the common and domestic life of the Athenians, of which this kind of comedy was a picture, with some aggravation of the features : he will bring within his view all the customs, manners, and vices, and the whole character of the people of Athens. By bringing all these together he will fix in his mind an indelible idea of a people in whom so many contrarieties were united, and who in a manner that can scarce be expressed, connected nobility with the cast of Athens, wisdom with madness, rage for novelty, with a bigotry for antiquity, the politeness of a monarchy with the roughness of a republic, refinement with coarseness, independence with Navery, haughtiness with servile compliance, severity of manners with debauchery, a kind of irreligion with piety. We shall do this in reading; as in travelling through different nations we make ourselves masters of their characters by combining their different appearances, and reflecting upon what we fee, The govern
III. The government of Athens makes ment of the a fine part of the ancient comedy. In Athenians.
most states the mystery of government is confined within the walls of the cabinet ; even in commonwealths it does not pass but through five or six heads, who rule those that think themselves the rulers. Oratory dares not touch it, and comedy still less. Cicero himself did not speak freely upon so nice a subject as the Roman commonwealth ; but the Athenian eloquence was informed of the whole secret, and searches the recefies of the human mind, to fetch it out and expose it to the