It was that memorable day, in the first Summer of the late War, when our Navy engaged the Dutch: a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed Fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the Globe, the commerce of Nations, and the riches of the Universe. While these vast floating bodies, on either side, moved against each other in parallel lines, and our Country men, under the happy conduct of his Royal Highness, went breaking, by little and little, into the line of the Enemies; the noise of the Cannon from both Navies reached our ears about the City: so that all men, being alarmed with it, and in a dreadful suspense of the event, which we knew was then deciding, every one went following the sound as his fancy led him; and leaving the Town almost empty, some took towards the Park, some cross the River, others down it; all seeking the noise in the depth of silence.
Amongst the rest, it was the fortune of Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius and Neander, to be in company together: three of them persons whom their wit and Quality have made known to all the Town: and whom I have chose to hide under these borrowed names, that they may not suffer by so ill a relation as I am going to make of their discourse.
Taking then a Barge which a servant of Lisideus had provided for them, they made haste to shoot the Bridge, and left behind them that great fall of waters which hindered them from hearing what they desired: after which, having disengaged themselves from many Vessels which rode at Anchor in the Thames, and almost blocked up the passage towards Greenwich, they ordered the Watermen to let fall their Oars more gently; and then every one favoring his own curiosity with a strict silence, it was not long ere they perceived the Air break about them like the noise of distant. Thunder, or of Swallows in a Chimney: those little undulations of sound, though almost vanishing before they reached them, yet still seeming to retain somewhat of their first horror which they had betwixt the Fleets: after they had attentively listened till such time as the sound by little and little went from them; Eugenius lifting up his head, and taking notice of it, was the first who congratulated to the rest that happy Omen of our Nations Victory adding, we had but this to desire in confirmation of it, that we might hear no more of that noise which was now leaving the English Coast. When the rest had concurred in the same opinion, Crites, a person of a sharp judgment, and somewhat too delicate a taste in wit, which the world have mistaken in him for ill nature, said, smiling to us, that if the concernment of this battle had not been so exceeding great, he could scarce have wished the Victory at the price he knew must pay for it, in being subject to the reading and hearing of so many ill verses as he was sure would be made upon it; adding, that no Argument could scape some of those eternal Rhymers, who watch a Battle with more diligence than the Ravens and birds of Prey; and the worst of them surest to be first in upon the quarry, while the better able, either out of modesty writ not at all, or set that due value upon their Poems, as to let them be often called for and long expected! “There are some of those impertinent people you speak of,” answered Lisideius, “who to my knowledge, are already so provided, either way, that they can produce not only a Panegyric upon the Victory, but, if need be, a funeral elegy upon the Duke: and after they have crowned his valor with many Laurels, at last deplore the odds under which he fell, concluding that his courage deserved a better destiny.” All the company smiled at the conceit of Lisideius, but Crites, more eager than before, began to make particular exceptions against some Writers, and said the public Magistrate ought to send betimes to forbid them; and that it concerned the peace and quiet of all honest people, that ill Poets should be as well silenced as seditious Preachers. “In my opinion,” replied Eugenius, “you pursue your point too far; for as to my own particular, I am so great a lover of Poesy, that I could wish them all rewarded who attempt but to do well; at least I would not have them worse used than Sylla the Dictator did one of their brethren heretofore: Quem in concione vidimus (says Tully speaking of him) cum ei libellum malus poeta de populo subjecisset, quod epigramma in eum fecisset tantummodo alternis versibus longiuculis, statim ex iis rebus quæ tunc vendebat jubere ei præmium tribui, sub ea conditione ne quid postea scriberet.” [We saw him once in an assembly, when out of the crowd a bad poet offered him an epigram in elegiac verse that he had just written as an attack on Sylla; he immediately ordered that the poet be given a reward out of the articles that he was selling, with the condition that he never again write anything—ed.] “I could wish with all my heart,” replied Crites, “that many whom we know were as bountifully thanked upon the same condition, that they would never trouble us again. For amongst others, I have a mortal apprehension of two Poets, whom this victory with the help of both her wings will never be able to escape.” “’Tis easy to guess whom you intend,” said Lisideius; “and without naming them, I ask you if one of them does not perpetually pay us with clenches upon words and a certain clownish kind of raillery? if now and then he does not offer at a Catachresis or Clevelandism, wresting and torturing a word into another meaning: In fine, if he be not one of those whom the French would call un mauvais buffon; one that is so much a well-willer to the Satire, that he spares no man; and though he cannot strike a blow to hurt any, yet ought to be punished for the malice of the action, as our Witches are justly hanged because they think themselves so; and suffer deservedly for believing they did mischief, because they meant it.” “You have described him,” said Crites, “so exactly, that I am afraid to come after you with my other extremity of Poetry: He is one of those who having had some advantage of education and converse, knows better than the other what a Poet should be, but puts it into practice more unluckily than any man; his stile and matter are every where alike; he is the most calm, peaceable. Writer you ever read: he never disquiets your passions with the least concernment, but still leaves you in as even a temper as he found you; he is a very Leveller in Poetry, he creeps along with ten little words in every line, and helps out his Numbers with For to, and Unto, and all the pretty Expletives he can find, till he drags them to the end of another line; while the Sense is left tired half way behind it; he doubly starves all his Verses, first for want of thought, and then of expression; his Poetry neither has wit in it, nor seems to have it; like him in Martial: Pauper videri Cinna vult, et est pauper [Cinna wants to seem to be a pauper; and, sure enough, he is a pauper]: He affects plainness, to cover his want of imagination: when he writes the serious way, the highest flight of his fancy is some miserable Antithesis, or seeming contradiction; and in the Comic he is still reaching at some thin conceit, the ghost of a Jest, and that too flies before him, never to be caught; these Swallows which we see before us on the Thames, are just resemblance of his wit: you may observe how near the water they stoop, how many proffers they make to dip, and yet how seldom they touch it: and when they do, ’tis but the surface: they skim over it but to catch a gnat, and then mount into the air and leave it.”
“Well Gentlemen,” said Eugenius, “you may speak your pleasure of these Authors; but though I and some few more about the Town may give you a peaceable hearing, yet, assure yourselves, there are multitudes who would think you malicious and them injured: especially him who you first described; he is the very Withers of the City: they have bought more Editions of his Works than would serve to lay under all the Pies at the Lord Mayor’s Christmas. When his famous Poem first came out in the year, I have seen them reading it in the midst of Change-time; many so vehement they were at it, that they lost their bargain by the Candles ends: but what will you say, if he has been received amongst the great Ones? I can assure you he is, this day, the envy of a great person, who is Lord in the Art of Quibbling; and who does not take it well, that any man should intrude so far into his Province.” “All I would wish,” replied Crites, “is, that they who love his Writings, may still admire him, and his fellow Poet: Qui Bavium non odit, etc. [who does not hate Bavius—ed.] is curse sufficient.” “And farther,” added Lisideius, “I believe there is no man who writes well, but would think himself very hardly dealt with, if their Admirers should praise anything of his: Nam quos contemnimus eorum quoque laudes contemnimus [For we detest praise that comes from those we detest—ed.]” “There are so few who write well in this Age,” said Crites, “that methinks any praises should be welcome; then neither rise to the dignity of the last Age, nor to any of the Ancients; and we may cry out of the Writers of this time, with more reason than Petronius of his, Pace vestra liceat dixisse, primi omnium eloquentiam perdidistis [If I may be permitted to say so, you were, of all, the first to lose the old eloquence]: you have debauched the true old Poetry so far, that Nature, which is the soul of it, is not in any of your Writings.”
“If your quarrel,” said Eugenius, “to those who now write, be grounded only upon your reverence to Antiquity, there is no man more ready to adore those great Greeks and Romans than I am: but on the other side, I cannot think so contemptibly of the Age I live in, or so dishonorably of my own Country, as not to judge we equal the Ancients in most kinds of Poesy, and in some surpass them; neither know I any reason why I may not be as zealous for the Reputation of our Age, as we find the Ancients themselves in reference to those who lived before them. For you hear your Horace saying,
Indignor quidquam reprehendi, non quia crassé
Compositum, illepidève putetur, sed quia nuper
[I bristle when something is condemned, not because
it is badly or obscurely written, but just because it is new—ed.].
Si meliora dies, ut vina, poemata reddit,
Scire velim pretium chartis quotus arroget annus?
[If books, like wines, improve with age, tell me
in what year they achieve value?—ed.].
“But I see I am engaging in a wide dispute, where the arguments are not like to reach close on either side; for Poesy is of so large extent, and so many both of the Ancients and Moderns have done well in all kinds of it, that, in citing one against the other, we shall take up more time this Evening, than each man’s occasions will allow him: therefore I would ask Crites to what part of Poesy he would confine his Arguments, and whether he would defend the general cause of the Ancients against the Moderns, or oppose any Age of the Moderns against this of ours?”
Crites a little while considering upon this Demand, told Eugenius he approved his Propositions, and, if he pleased, he would limit their Dispute to Dramatic Poesy; in which he thought it not difficult to prove, either that the Ancients were superior to the Moderns, or the last Age to this of ours.
Eugenius was somewhat surprised, when he heard Crites make choice of that Subject; “For ought I see,” said he, “I have undertaken a harder Province than I imagined; for though I never judged the Plays of the Greek or Roman Poets comparable to ours; yet on the other side those we now see acted, come short of many which were written in the last Age: but my comfort is if we are o’ercome, it will be only by our own Countrymen: and if we yield to them in this one part of Poesy, we more surpass them in all the other; for in the Epic or Lyric way it will be hard for them to show us one such amongst them, as we have many now living, or who lately were so. They can produce nothing so courtly writ, or which expresses so much the Conversation of a Gentleman, as Sir John Suckling; nothing so even, sweet, and flowing as Mr. Waller; nothing so Majestic, so correct as Sir John Denham; nothing so elevated, so copious, and full of spirit, as Mr. Cowley; as for the Italian, French, and Spanish Plays, I can make it evident that those who now write, surpass them; and that the Drama is wholly ours.”
All of them were thus far of Eugenius’s opinion, that the sweetness of English Verse was never understood or practiced by our Fathers; even Crites himself did not much oppose it: and every one was willing to acknowledge how much our Poesy is improved, by the happiness of some Writers yet living; who first taught us to mould our thoughts into easy and significant words; to retrench the superfluities of expression, and to make our Rime so properly a part of the Verse, that it should never mislead the sense, but itself be led and governed by it.
Eugenius was going to continue this Discourse, when Lisideius told him it was necessary, before they proceeded further, to take a standing measure of their Controversy; for how was it possible to be decided who writ the best Plays, before we know what a Play should be? but, this once agreed on by both Parties, each might have recourse to it, either to prove his own advantages, or discover the failings of his Adversary.
Lisideius, after some modest denials, at last confessed he had a rude Notion of it; indeed rather a Description than a Definition: but which served to guide him in his private thoughts, when he was to make a judgment of what others writ: that he conceived a Play ought to be, A just and lively Image of Humane Nature, representing its Passions and Humors, and the Changes of Fortune to which it is subject; for the Delight and Instruction of Mankind.
This Definition, though Crites raised a Logical Objection against it; that it was only a genere et fine [that is, too broadly, according to category and purpose—as though one defined “shirt” as “a garment to keep one warm”—ed.], and so not altogether perfect; was yet well received by the rest: and after they had given order to the Water-men to turn their Barge, and row softly, that they might take the cool of the Evening in their return; Crites, being desired by the Company to begin, spoke on behalf of the Ancients, in this manner:
“If Confidence presage a Victory, Eugenius, in his own opinion, has already triumphed over the Ancients; nothing seems more easy to him, than to overcome those whom it is our greatest praise to have imitated well: for we do not only build upon their foundation; but by their models. Dramatic Poesy had time enough, reckoning from Thespis (who first invented it) to Aristophanes, to be born, to grow up, and to flourish in Maturity. It has been observed of Arts and Sciences, that in one and the same Century they have arrived to a great perfection; and no wonder, since every Age has a kind of Universal Genius, which inclines those that live in it to some particular Studies: the Work then being pushed on by many hands, must of necessity go forward.
“Is it not evident, in these last hundred years (when the Study of Philosophy has been the business of all the Virtuosi in Christendom) that almost a new Nature has been revealed to us? that more errors of the School have been detected, more useful Experiments in Philosophy have been made, more Noble Secrets in Optics, Medicine, Anatomy, Astronomy, discovered, than in all those credulous and doting Ages from Aristotle to us? so true it is that nothing spreads more fast than Science, when rightly and generally cultivated.
“Add to this the more than common emulation that was in those times of writing well; which though it be found in all Ages and all Persons that pretend to the same Reputation; yet Poesy being then in more esteem than now it is, had greater Honors decreed to the Professors of it; and consequently the Rival-ship was more high between them; they had Judges ordained to decide their Merit, and Prizes to reward it: and Historians have been diligent to record of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Lycophron, and the rest of them, both who they were that vanquished in these Wars of the Theater, and how often they were crowned: while the Asian Kings, and Grecian Commonwealths scarce afforded them a Nobler Subject than the unmanly Luxuries of a Debauched Court, or giddy Intrigues of a Factious City. Alit æmulatio ingenia (says Paterculus) et nunc invidia, nunc admiratio incitationem accendit: Emulation is the Spur of Wit, and sometimes Envy, sometimes Admiration quickens our Endeavors.
“But now since the Rewards of Honor are taken away, that Virtuous Emulation is turned into direct Malice; yet so slothful, that it contents itself to condemn and cry down others, without attempting to do better: ’Tis a Reputation too unprofitable, to take the necessary pains for it; yet wishing they had it, is incitement enough to hinder others from it. And this, in short, Eugenius, is the reason, why you have now so few good Poets; and so many severe Judges: Certainly, to imitate the Ancients well, much labor and long study is required: which pains, I have already shown, our Poets would want encouragement to take, if yet they had ability to go through with it. Those Ancients have been faithful Imitators and wise Observers of that Nature, which is so torn and ill represented in our Plays, they have handed down to us a perfect resemblance of her; which we, like ill Copiers, neglecting to look on, have rendered monstrous and disfigured. But, that you may know how much you are indebted to those your Masters, and be ashamed to have so ill requited them: I must remember you that all the Rules by which we practice the Drama at this day, either such as relate to the justness and symmetry of the Plot; or the Episodical Ornaments, such as Descriptions, Narrations, and other Beauties, which are not essential to the Play; were delivered to us from the Observations that Aristotle made, of those Poets, which either lived before him, or were his Contemporaries: we have added nothing of our own, except we have the confidence to say our wit is better; which none boast of in our Age, but such as understand not theirs. Of that Book which Aristotle has left us, Peri tes Poiekes, Horace’s Art of Poetry is an excellent Comment, and, I believe, restores to us that Second Book of his [Aristotle’s—ed.] concerning Comedy, which is wanting [missing—ed.] in him.
“Out of these two has been extracted the Famous Rules which the French call, Des Trois Unitez, or, The Three Unities, which ought to be observed in every Regular Play; namely, of Time, Place, and Action.
“The unity of Time they comprehend in hours, the compass of a Natural Day; or as near it as can be contrived: and the reason of it is obvious to every one, that the time of the feigned action, or fable of the Play, should be proportioned as near as can be to the duration of that time in which it is represented; since therefore all Plays are acted on the Theater in a space of time much within the compass of hours, that Play is to be thought the nearest imitation of Nature, whose Plot or Action is confined within that time; and, by the same Rule which concludes this general proportion of time, it follows, that all the parts of it are to be equally subdivided; as namely, that one act take not up the supposed time of half a day; which is out of proportion to the rest: since the other four are then to be straitened within the compass of the remaining half; for it is unnatural that one Act, which being spoke or written, is not longer than the rest, should be supposed longer by the Audience; ’Tis therefore the poet’s duty, to take care that no Act should be imagined to exceed the time in which it is represented on the Stage, and that the intervals and inequalities of time be supposed to fall out between the Acts.
“This Rule of Time how well it has been observed by the Ancients, most of their Plays will witness; you see them in their Tragedies (wherein to follow this Rule is certainly most difficult) from the very beginning of their Plays, falling close into that part of the Story which they intend for the action or principal object of it; leaving the former part to be delivered by Narration: so that they set the Audience, as it were, at the Post where the Race is to be concluded: and, saving them the tedious expectation of seeing the Poet set out and ride the beginning of the Course) you behold him not, till he is in sight of the Goal, and just upon you.
“For the Second Unity, which is that of place, the Ancients meant by it, That the Scene ought to be continued through the Play, in the same place where it was laid in the beginning: for the Stage, on which it is represented, being but one and the same place, it is unnatural to conceive it many; and those far distant from one another. I will not deny but by the variation of painted Scenes, the Fancy (which in these cases will contribute to its own deceit) may sometimes imagine it several places, with some appearance of probability; yet it still carries the greater likelihood of truth, if those places be supposed so near each other, as in the same Town or City; which may all be comprehended under the larger Denomination of one place: for a greater distance will bear no proportion to the shortness of time, which is allotted in the acting, to pass from one of them to another; for the Observation of this, next to the Ancients, the French are to be most commended. They tie themselves so strictly to the unity of place, that you never see in any of their Plays a Scene changed in the middle of the Act: if the Act begins in a Garden, a Street, or Chamber, ’tis ended in the same place; and that you may know it to be the same, the Stage is so supplied with persons that it is never empty all the time: he that enters the second has business with him who was on before; and before the second quits the Stage, a third appears who has business with him. This Corneille calls La Liaison des Scenes, the continuity or joining of the Scenes; and ’tis a good mark of a well contrived Play when all the Persons are known to each other, and every one of them has some affairs with all the rest.
“As for the third Unity which is that of Action, the Ancients meant no other by it than what the Logicians do by their Finis, the end or scope of an action that which is the first in Intention, and last in Execution: now the Poet is to aim at one great and complete action, to the carrying on of which all things in his Play, even the very obstacles, are to be subservient; and the reason of this is as evident as any of the former.
“For two Actions equally labored and driven on by the Writer, would destroy the unity of the Poem; it would be no longer one Play, but two: not but that there may be many actions in a Play, as Ben Jonson has observed in his Discoveries; but they must be all subservient to the great one, which our language happily expresses in the name of under-plots: such as in Terence’s Eunuch is the difference and reconcilement of Thais and Phædria, which is not the chief business of the Play, but promotes; the marriage of Chærea and Chreme’s Sister, principally intended by the Poet. There ought to be one action, says Corneille, that is one complete action which leaves the mind of the Audience in a full repose: But this cannot be brought to pas but by many other imperfect ones which conduce to it, and hold the Audience in a delightful suspense of what will be.
“If by these Rules (to omit many other drawn from the Precepts and Practice of the Ancients) we should judge our modern Plays; ’Tis probable, that few of them would endure the trial: that which should be the business of a day, takes up in some of them an age; instead of one action they are the Epitomes of a man’s life,; and for one spot of ground (which the Stage should represent) we are sometimes in more Countries than the Map can show us.
“But if we will allow the Ancients to have contrived well, we must acknowledge them to have writ better; questionless we are deprived of a great stock of wit in the loss of Meander among the Greek Poets, and of Caeilius, Affranius and Varius, among the Romans: we may guess of Menander’s Excellency by the Plays of Terence, who translated some of his, and yet wanted so much of him that he was called by C. Cæsar the Half-Menander, and of Varius, by the Testimonies of Horace Martial, and Velleus Paterculus: ’Tis probable that these, could they be recovered, would decide the controversy; but so long as Aristophanes in the old Comedy, and Plautus in the new are extant; while the Tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Seneca are to be had, I can never see one of those Plays which are now written, but it increases my admiration of the Ancients; and yet I must acknowledge further, that to admire them as we ought, we should understand them better than we do. Doubtless many things appear flat to us, whose wit depended upon some custom or story which never came to our knowledge, or perhaps upon some Criticism in their language, which being so long dead, and only remaining in their Books, ’tis not possible they should make us know it perfectly. To read Macrobius, explaining the propriety and elegancy of many words in Virgil, which I had before passed over without consideration, as common things, is enough to assure me that I ought to think the same of Terence; and that in the purity of his style (which Tully so much valued that he ever carried his works about him) there is yet left in him great room for admiration, if I knew but where to place it. In the mean time I must desire you to take notice, that the greatest man of the last age (Ben Jonson) was willing to give place to them in all things: He was not only a professed Imitator of Horace, but a learned Plagiary of all the others; you track him every where in their Snow: If Horace, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter, Seneca, and Juvenal, had their own from him, there are few serious thoughts which are new in him; you will pardon me therefore if I presume he loved their fashion when he wore their clothes. But since I have otherwise a great veneration for him, and you Eugenius, prefer him above all other Poets, I will use no farther argument to you than his example: I will produce Father Ben to you, dressed in all the ornaments and colors of the Ancients, you will need no other guide to our Party if you follow him; and whether you consider the bad Plays of our Age, or regard the good ones of the last, both the best and worst of the Modern Poets will equally instruct you to esteem the Ancients.”
“I have observed in your Speech that the former part of it is convincing as to what the Moderns have profited by the rules of the Ancients, but in the latter you are careful to conceal how much they have excelled them: we own all the helps we have from them, and want neither veneration nor gratitude while we acknowledge that to overcome them we must make use of the advantages we have received from them; but to these assistances we have joined our own industry; for (had we sat down with a dull imitation of them) we might then have lost somewhat of the old perfection, but never acquired any that was new. We draw not therefore after their lines, but those of Nature; and having the life before us, besides the experience of all they knew, it is no wonder if we hit some airs and features which they have missed: I deny not what you urge of Arts and Sciences, that they have flourished in some ages more than others; but your instance in Philosophy makes for me: for if Natural Causes be more known now than in the time of Aristotle, because more studied, it follows that Poesy and other Arts may with the same pains arrive still nearer to perfection, and, that granted, it will rest for you to prove that they wrought more perfect images of human life than we; which, seeing in your Discourse you have avoided to make good, it shall now be my task to show you some part of their defects, and some few Excellencies of the Moderns; and I think there is none among us can imagine I do it enviously, or with purpose to detract from them; for what interest of Fame or Profit can the living lose by the reputation of the dead? on the other side, it is a great truth which Velleius Paterculus affirms. Audita visis libentius laudemus; et præsentia invidia, prœterita admiratione prosequimur; a his nos obrui, illis instrui credimus [we praise what we have heard more readily than what we have seen, and we regard the present with envy and the past with admiration; we feel weighed down by the former, lifted up by the latter]: That praise or censure is certainly the most sincere which unbribed posterity shall give us.
“Be pleased then in the first place to take notice, that the Greek Poesy, which Crites has affirmed to have arrived to perfection in the Reign of the old Comedy, was so far from it, that the distinction of it into Acts was not known to them; or if it were, it is yet so darkly delivered to us that we can not make it out.
“All we know of it is from the singing of their Chorus, and that too is so uncertain that in some of their Plays we have reason to conjecture they sung more than five times: Aristotle indeed divides the integral parts of a Play into four: First, The Protasis or entrance, which gives light only to the Characters of the persons, and proceeds very little into any part of the action: Secondly, The Epitasis, or working up of the Plot where the Play grows warmer: the design or action of it is drawing on, and you see something promising that it will come to pass: Thirdly, the Catastasis, or Counterturn, which destroys that expectation, embroils the action in new difficulties, and leaves you far distant from that hope in which it found you, as you may have observed in a violent stream resisted by a narrow passage; it runs round to an eddy, and carries back the waters with more swiftness than it brought them on: Lastly, the Catastrophe, which the Grecians called lysis, the French le denouement, and we the discovery or unraveling of the Plot: there you see all things settling again upon their first foundations, and the obstacles which hindered the design or action of the Play once removed, it ends with that resemblance of truth and nature, that the audience are satisfied with the conduct of it. Thus this great man delivered to us the image of a Play, and I must confess it is so lively that from thence much light has been derived to the forming it more perfectly into Acts and Scenes; but what Poet first limited to five the number of the Acts I know not; only we see it so firmly established in the time of Horace, that he gives it for a rule in Comedy; Neu brevior quinto, neu sit productior actu [let it be neither shorter nor longer than five acts—ed.]: So that you see the Grecians cannot be said to have consummated this Art; writing rather by Entrances than by Acts, and having rather a general indigested notion of a Play, than knowing how and where to bestow the particular graces of it.
“But since the Spaniards at this day allow but three Acts, which they call Jornadas, to a Play; and the Italians in many of theirs follow them, when I condemn the Ancients, I declare it is not altogether because they have not five Acts to every Play, but because they have not confined themselves to one certain number; ’Tis building an House without a Model: and when the succeeded in such undertakings, they ought to have sacrificed to Fortune, not to the Muses.
“Next, for the Plot, which Aristotle called to mythos and often Tōn pragmatōn synthesis [the ordering of the actions—ed.], and from him the Romans Fabula, it has already been judiciously observed by a late Writer, that in their Tragedies it was only some Tale derived from Thebes or Troy, or at least some thing that happened in those two Ages; which was worn so threadbare by the Pens of all the Epic Poets, and even by Tradition itself of the Talkative Greeklings (as Ben Jonson calls them) that before it came upon the Stage, it was already known to all the Audience: and the people so soon as ever they heard the Name of Oedipus, knew as well as the Poet, that he had killed his Father by mistake, and committed Incest with his Mother, before the Play; that they were now to hear of a great Plague, an Oracle, and the Ghost of Laius: so that they sat with a yawning kind of expectation, till he was to come with his eyes pulled out, and speak a hundred or two of Verses in a Tragic tone, in complaint of his misfortunes. But one Oedipus, Hercules, or Medea, had been tolerable; poor people they scaped not so good cheap: they had still the Chapon Bouillé [boiled capon, a delicacy and a luxury—ed.] set before them, till their appetites were cloyed with the same dish, and the Novelty being gone, the pleasure vanished: so that one main end of Dramatic Poesy in its Definition, which was to cause Delight, as of consequence destroyed.
“In their Comedies, the Romans generally borrowed their Plots from the Greek Poets; and theirs was commonly a little Girl stolen or wandered from her Parents, brought back unknown to the same City, there got with child by some lewd young fellow; who, by the help of his servant, cheats his father, and when her time comes, to cry Juno Lucina fer opem [Juno, goddess of childbirth, bring help—ed.]; one or other sees a little Box or Cabinet which was carried away with her, and so discovers her to her friends, if some God do not prevent it, by coming down in a Machine, and take the thanks of it to himself.
“By the Plot you may guess much of the Characters of the Persons. An Old Father that would willingly before he dies see his Son well married; his Debauched Son, kind in his Nature to his Wench, but miserably in want of Money, a Servant or Slave, who has so much wit to strike in with him, and help to dupe his Father, a Braggadochio, Captain, a Parasite, and a Lady of Pleasure.
“As for the poor honest Maid, whom all the Story is built upon, and who ought to be one of the principal Actors in the Play, she is commonly a Mute in it: She has the breeding of the Old Elizabeth way, for Maids to be seen and not to be heard; and it is enough you know she is willing to be married, when the Fifth Act requires it.
“These are Plots built after the Italian Mode of Houses, you see through them all at once; the Characters are indeed the Imitations of Nature, but so narrow as if they had imitated only an Eye or an Hand, and did not dare to venture on the lines of a Face, or the Proportion of a Body.
“But in how straight a compass soever they have bounded their Plots and Characters, we will pass in by, if they have regularly pursued them, and perfectly observed those three Unities of Time, Place, and Action: the knowledge of which you say is derived to us from them. But in the first place give me leave to tell you, that the Unity of Place, how ever it might be practiced by them, was never any of their Rules: We neither find it in Aristotle, Horace, of any who have written of it, till in our age the French Poets first made it a Precept of the Stage. The unity of time, even Terence himself (who was the best and the most regular of them) has neglected: His Heautontimoroumenos or Self-Punisher takes up visibly two days; therefore says Scaliger, the two first Acts concluding the first day, were acted over-night; the three last on the ensuing day: and Euripides, in trying himself to one day, has committed an absurdity never to be forgiven him: for in one of his Tragedies he has made Theseus go from Athens to Thebes, which was about forty English miles, under the walls of it to give battle, and appear victorious in the next Act; and yet from the time of his departure to the return of the Nuntius, who gives the relation of his Victory, Æthra and the Chorus have but Verses; that is not for every Mile a Verse.
“The like error is as evident in Terence’s Eunuch, when Laches, the old man, enters in a mistake the house of Thais, where betwixt his Exit and the entrance of Pythias, who comes to give an ample relation of the Garboyles he has raised within, Parmeno who was left upon the Stage, has not above five lines to speak: C’est bien employé un temps si court [It is well to employ such a short time—Corneille, Troisième Discours—ed.], says the French Poet, who furnished me with one of the observations; And almost all their Tragedies will afford us examples of the like nature.
“’Tis true, they have kept the continuity, or as you called it Liaison des Scenes somewhat better: two do not perpetually come in together, talk, and go out together; and other two succeed them, and do the same throughout the Act, which the English call by the name of single Scenes; but the reason is, because they have seldom above two or three Scenes, properly so called, in every act; for it is to be accounted a new Scene, not every time the Stage is empty, but every person who enters, though to others, makes it so: because he introduces a new business: Now the Plots of their Plays being narrow, and the persons few, one of their Acts was written in a less compass than one of our well wrought Scenes, and yet they are often deficient even in this: To go no further than Terence, you find in the Eunuch, Antipho entering single in the midst of the third Act, after Chremes and Pythias were gone off: In the same Play you have likewise Dorias beginning the fourth Act alone; and after she has made a relation of what was done at the Soldier’s entertainment (which by the way was very inartificial to do, because she was presumed to speak directly to the Audience, and to acquaint them with what was necessary to be known, but yet should have been so contrived by the Poet as to have been told by persons of the Drama to one another, and so by them to have come to the knowledge of the people) she quits the Stage, and Phœdria enters next, alone likewise: He also gives you an account of himself, and of his returning from the Country in Monologue, his Adelphi or Brothers, Syrus and Demea enter; after the Scene was broken by the departure of Sostrata, Geta and Cathara; and indeed you can scarce look into any of his Comedies, where you will not presently discover the same interruption.
John Dryden’s Of Dramatic Poesie (also known as An Essay of Dramatic Poesy) is an exposition of several of the major critical positions of the time, set out in a semidramatic form that gives life to the abstract theories. Of Dramatic Poesie not only offers a capsule summary of the status of literary criticism in the late seventeenth century; it also provides a succinct view of the tastes of cultured men and women of the period. Dryden synthesizes the best of both English and Continental (particularly French) criticism; hence, the essay is a single source for understanding neoclassical attitudes toward dramatic art. Moreover, in his discussion of the ancients versus the moderns, in his defense of the use of rhyme, and in his argument concerning Aristotelian prescripts for drama, Dryden depicts and reflects upon the tastes of literate Europeans who shaped the cultural climate in France and England for a century.
Although it is clear that Dryden uses Neander as a mouthpiece for his own views about drama, he is careful to allow his other characters to present cogent arguments for the literature of the classical period, of France, and of Renaissance England. More significantly, although he was a practitioner of the modern form of writing plays himself, Dryden does not insist that the dramatists of the past are to be faulted simply because they did not adhere to methods of composition that his own age venerated. For example, he does not adopt the views of the more strident critics whose insistence on slavish adherence to the rules derived from Aristotle had led to a narrow definition for greatness among playwrights. Instead, he pleads for commonsensical application of these prescriptions, appealing to a higher standard of judgment: the discriminating sensibility of the reader or playgoer who can recognize greatness even when the rules are not followed.
For this reason, Dryden can champion the works of William Shakespeare over those of many dramatists who were more careful in preserving the unities of time, place, and action. It may be difficult to imagine, after centuries of veneration, that at one time Shakespeare was not held in high esteem; in the late seventeenth century, critics reviled him for his disregard for decorum and his seemingly careless attitudes regarding the mixing of genres. Dryden, however, recognized the greatness of Shakespeare’s productions; his support for Shakespeare’s “natural genius” had a significant impact on the elevation of the Renaissance playwright to a place of preeminence among dramatists.
The period after the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne is notable in English literary history as an age in which criticism flourished, probably in no small part as a result of the emphasis on neoclassical rules of art in seventeenth century France, where many of King Charles II’s courtiers and literati had passed the years of Cromwell’s rule. Dryden sets his discussion in June, 1665, during a naval battle between England and the Netherlands. Four cultivated gentlemen, Eugenius, Lisideius, Crites, and Neander, have taken a barge down the River Thames to observe the combat and, as guns sound in the background, they comment on the sorry state of modern literature; this naval encounter will inspire hundreds of bad verses commending the victors or consoling the vanquished. Crites laments that his contemporaries will never equal the standard set by the Greeks and the Romans. Eugenius, more optimistic, disagrees and suggests that they pass the remainder of the day debating the relative merits of classical and modern literature. He proposes that Crites choose one literary genre for comparison and initiate the discussion.
As Crites begins his defense of the classical drama, he mentions one point that is accepted by all the others: Drama is, as Aristotle wrote, an imitation of life, and it is successful as it reflects human nature clearly. He also discusses the three unities, rules dear to both the classicist and the neoclassicist, requiring that a play take place in one locale during one day, and that it encompass one action or plot.
Crites contends that modern playwrights are but pale shadows of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Seneca, and Terence. The classical dramatists not only followed the unities successfully; they also used language more...
(The entire section is 1774 words.)