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one,) yet I have often tried, by myself, but in vain, to reach the least distant likeness of the vis comica of Nokes. Though this may seem little to his praise, it may be negatively saying a good deal to it, because I have never seen any one actor, except himself, whom Icould not at least so far imitate, as to give you a more than tolerable notion of his manner. But Nokes was so singular a species, and was so formed by nature for the stage, that I question if (beyond the trouble of getting words by heart) it ever cost him an hour's labour to arrive at that high reputation he had, and deserved. “The characters he particularly shone in were Sir Martin Marr-all, Gomez, in the Spanish Friar, Sir Nicolas Cully, in Love in a Tub, Barnaby Brittle, in the Wanton Wife, Sir Davy Dunce, in the Soldier's Fortune, Sosia, in Amphytrion, &c. &c. &c. To tell you how he acted them, is beyond the reach of criticism: but, to tell you what effect his action had upon the spectator, is not impossible: this, then, is all you will expect from me, and from hence I must leave you to guess at him. “He scarce ever made his first entrance in a play, but he was received with an involuntary applause, not of hands only, for those may be, and have often been partially prostituted, and bespoken; but by a general laughter, which the very sight of him provoked, and nature could not resist; yet the louder the laugh, the graver was his look upon it; and sure, the ridiculous solemnity of his features were enough to have set a whole bench of bishops into a titler, could he have been honoured (may it be no offence to suppose it) with such grave and right reverend auditors. In the ludicrous distresses, which, by the laws of comedy, Folly is often involved in; he sunk into such a mixture of piteous pusillanimity, and a consternation so ruefully ridiculous and inconsolable, that when he had shook you, to a fatigue of laughter, it became a moot point, whether you ought not to have pitied him. When he debated any matter by himself, he would shut up his mouth with a dumb studious pout, and roll his full eye into such a vacant amazement, such a palpable ignorance of what to think of it, that his silent perplexity (which would sometimes hold him several minutes) gave your imagination as full content as the most absurd thing he could say upon it. In the character of Sir Martin Marr-all, who is always committing blunders to the prejudice of his own interest, when he had brought himself to a dilemma in his affairs, by vainly proceeding upon his own head, and was afterwards afraid to look his governing servant and counsellor in the face; what a copious and distressful harangue have I seen him make with his looks (while the house has been in one continued roar, for several minutes) before he could prevail with his courage to speak a word to him! Then might you have, at once, read in his face veration, that his own measures, which he had piqued himself upon, had failed;—envy, of his servant's superior wit:—distress, to retrieve the occasion he had lost;-shame, to confess his folly;-and yet a sullen desire, to be reconciled and better advised for the future! What tra
gedy ever showed us such a tumult of passions, rising at once in one bosom 1 or what buskined hero, standing under the load of them, could have more effectually moved his spectators, by the most pathetic speech, than poor miserable Nokes did, by this silent eloquence, and piteous plight of his features'
“His person was of the middle size, his voice clear and audible; his natural countenance, grave and sober; but the moment he spoke, the settled seriousness of his features was utterly discharged, and a dry, drolling, or laughing levity took such full possession of him, that I can only refer the idea of him to your imagination. In some of his low characters, that became it, he had a shuffling shamble in his gait, with so contented an ignorance in his aspect, and an awkward absurdity in his gesture, that had you not known him, you could not have believed, that naturally he could have had a grain of common sense. In a word, I am tempted to sum up the character of Nokes, as a comedian, in a parody of what Shakspeare's Mark Antony says of Brutus as a hero:
“His life was laughter, and the ludicrous
The portrait of Underhil has not less the air of exact resemblance, though the subject is of less richness.
“Underhil was a correct and natural comedian; his particular excellence was in characters, that may be called still-life, I mean the stiff, the heavy, and the stupid: to these he gave the exactest and most expressive colours, and, in some of them, looked as if it were not in the power of human passions to alter a feature of him. In the solemn formality of Obadiah in the Committee, and in the boobily heaviness of Lolpoop, in the Squire of Alsatia, he seemed the immovable log he stood for 1 a countenance of wood could not be more fixed than his, when the blockhead of a character required it; his face was full and long; from his crown to the end of his nose was the shorter half of it, so that the disproportion of his lower features, when soberly composed, with an unwandering eye hanging over them, threw him into the most lumpish, moping mortal, that ever made beholders merry! not but, at other times, he could be awakened into spirit equally ridiculous. In the coarse, rustic humour of Justice Clodpate, in Epsome Wells, he was a delightful brute! and in the blunt vivacity of Sir Sampson, in Love for Love, he showed all that true perverse spirit, that is commonly seen in much wit and ill-nature. This character is one of those few so well written, with so much wit and humour, that an actor must be the grossest dunce that does not appear with an unusual life in it: but it will still show as great a proportion of skill, to come near Underhil in the acting it, which (not to undervalue those who came soon aster him) I have not yet seen. He was particularly admired too, for the Gravedigger, in Hamlet. The author of the Tatler recommends him to the favour of the town, upon that play's being acted for his benvisit
wherein, after his age had some years obliged him to leave the stage, he came on again, for that day, to perform his old part; but, alas ! so worn and disabled, as if himself was to have lain in the grave he was digging: when he could no more excite laughter, his infirmities were dismissed with pity: he died soon after a superannuated pensioner, in the list of those who were supported by the joint sharers, under the first patent granted to Sir Richard Steele.” We pass reluctantly over the account of Mrs. Barry, Mrs. Betterton, and others of less note, to insert the following exquisite picture of one who seems to have been the most exquisite of actresses: “Mrs. Monfort, whose second marriage gave her the name of Verbruggen, was mistress of more variety of humour than I ever knew in any one actress. This variety, too, was attended with an equal vivacity, which made her excellent in characters extremely different. As she was naturally a pleasant mimic, she had the skill to make that talent useful on the stage, a talent which may be surprising in a conversation, and yet be lost when brought to the theatre, which was the case of Estcourt already mentioned: but where the elocution is round, distinct, voluble, and various, as Mrs. Monfort's was, the mimic, there, is a great assistant to the actor. Nothing, though ever so barren, if within the bounds of nature, could be flat in her hands. She gave many heightening touches to characters but coldly written, and often made an author vain of his work, that in itself had but Iittle merit. She was so fond of humour, in what low part soever to be found, that she would make no scruple of defacing her fair form, to come heartily into it; for when she was eminent in several desirable characters of wit and humour, in higher life, she would be in as much fancy, when descending into the antiquated Abigail, or Fletcher, as when triumphing in all the airs and vain graces of a fine lady; a merit, that few actresses care for. In a play of D'Urfey's, now forgotten, called The Western Lass, which part she acted, she transformed her whole being, body, shape, voice, language, look, and features, into almost another animal; with a strong Devonshire dialect, a broad laughing voice, a poking head, round shoulders, an unconceiving eye, and the most bedizening, dowdy dress, that ever covered the untrained limbs of a Joan Trot. To have seen her here, you would have thought it impossible the same creature could ever have been recovered, to what was as easy to her, the gay, the lively, and the desirable. Nor was her humour limited to her sex; for, while her shape permitted, she was a more adroit pretty fellow than is usually seen upon the stage: her easy air, action, mien, and gesture, quite changed from the quoif to the cocked hat, and cavalier in fashion. People were so fond of seeing her a man, that when the part of Bays, in the Rehearsal, had, for some time, lain dormant, she was desired to take it up, which I have seen her act with all the true, coxcombly spirit and humour that the sufficiency of the character required. “But what found most employment for her
whole various excellence at once, was the part of Melantha, in Marriage-Alamode. Melantha is as finished an impertinent as ever fluttered in a drawing-room, and seems to contain the most complete system of female foppery that could possibly be crowded into the tortured form of a fine lady. Her language, dress, motion, manners, soul, and body, are in a continual hurry, to be something more than is necessary or commendable. And though I doubt it will be a vain labour, to offer you a just likeness of Mrs. Monfort's action, yet the fantastic impression is still so strong in my memory, that I cannot help saying something, though fantastically, about it. The first ridiculous airs that break from her, are upon a gallant, never seen before, who delivers her a letter from her father, recommending him to her good graces, as an honourable lover. Here, now, one would think she might naturally show a little of the sex's decent reserve, though never so slightly covered? No, sir: not a title of it; modesty is the virtue of a poorsouled country gentlewoman; she is too much a court lady, to be under so vulgar a confusion; she reads the letter, therefore, with a careless, dropping lip, and an erected brow, humming it hastily over, as if she were impatient to outgo her father's commands, by making a complete conquest of him at once; and that the letter might not embarrass her attack, crack 1 she crumbles it at once, into her palm, and pours upon him her whole artillery of airs, eyes, and motion; down goes her dainty, diving body, to the ground, as if she were sinking under the conscious load of her own attractions; then launches into a flood of fine language and compliment, still playing her chest forward in fifty falls and risings, like a swan upon waving water; and, to complete her impertinence, she is so rapidly fond of her own wit, that she will not give her lover leave to praise it; silent assenting bows, and vain endeavours to speak, are all the share of the conversation he is admitted to, which, at last, he is relieved from, by her engagement to half a score visits, which she swims from him to make, with a promise to return in a twinkling.” In this work, also, the reader may become acquainted, on familiar terms, with Wilkes and Dogget, and Booth—fall in love with Mrs. Bracegirdle, as half the town did in days of yore—and sit amidst applauding whigs and tories on the first representation of Cato. He may follow the actors from the gorgeous seene of their exploits to their private enjoyments, share in their jealousies, laugh with them at their own ludicrous distresses, and join in their happy social hours. Yet with all our admiration for the theatrical artists, who yet live in Cibber's Apology, we rejoice to believe that their high and joyous art is not declining. Kemble, indeed, and Mrs. Siddons, have forsaken that stateliest region of tragedy which they first opened to our gaze. But the latter could not be regarded as belonging to any age; her path was lonely as it was exalted, and she appeared, not as highest of a class which existed before her, but as a being of another order, destined “to leave the world no copy,” but to
enrich its imaginations for ever. Yet have we, in the youngest of the Kemble line, at once an artist of antique grace in comedy, and a tragedian of look the most chivalrous and heroic—of “form and moving most express and admirable”—of enthusiasm to give vivid expression to the highest and the most honourable of human emotions.—Still, in Macready, can we boast of one, whose rich and noble voice is adapted to all the most exquisite varieties of tenderness and passion—one, whose genius leads him to imbody characters the most imaginative and romantic—and who throws over his grandest pictures tints so mellow and so nicely blended, that, with all their inimitable variety, they sink in perfect harmony into the soul.—Still, in Kean, have we aperformer of intensity never equalled—of pathos
the sweetest and most profound — whose bursts of passion almost transport us into another order of being, and whose flashes of genius cast a new light on the darkest caverns of the soul. If we have few names to boast in elegant comedy, we enjoy a crowd of the richest and most original humourists, with Munden—that actor of a myriad unforgotten faces—at their head. But our theme has enticed us beyond our proper domain of the past; and we must retire. Let us hope for some Cibber, to catch the graces of our living actors before they perish, that our successors may fix on them their retrospective eyes unblamed, and enrich with a review of their merits some number of our work, which will appear, in due course, in the twenty-second century |
REVIEW OF JOHN
John DENNIs, the terror or the scorn of that age, which is sometimes honoured with the title of Augustan, has attained a lasting notoriety, to which the reviewers of our times can scarcely aspire. His name is immortalized in the Dunciad; his best essay is preserved in Johnson's Lives of the Poets; and his works yet keep their state in two substantial volumes, which are now before us. But the interest of the most poignant abuse and the severest criticism quickly perishes. We contemplate the sarcasms and the invectives which once stung into rage the irritable generation of poets, with as cold a curiosity as we look on the rusty javelins or stuffed reptiles in the glass cases of the curious. The works of Dennis will, however, assist us in forming a judgment of the criticism of his age, as compared with that of our own, and will afford us an opportunity of investigating the influences of that popular art on literature and on manners.
But we must not forget, that Mr. Dennis laid claims to public esteem, not only as a critic, but as a wit, a politician, and a poet. In the first and the last of these characters, he can receive but little praise. His attempts at gayety and humour are weighty and awkward, almost without example. His poetry can only be described by negatives; it is not inharmonious, nor irregular, nor often turgid—for the author, too nice to sink into the mean, and too timid to rise into the bombastic, dwells in elaborate “decencies for ever.” The climax of his admiration for Queen Mary—“Mankind extols the king—the king admires the queen” —will give a fairspecimen of his architectural eulogies. He is entitled to more respect as an honest patriot. He was, indeed, a true-hearted Englishman—with the legititmate prejudices of his country—warmly attached to the prin
Review, No. 2.]
ciples of the revolution, detesting the French, abominating the Italian opera, and deprecating as heartily the triumph of the Pretender, as the success of a rival's tragedy. His political treatises, though not very elegantly finished, are made of sturdy materials. He appears, from some passages in his letters, to have cherished a genuine love of nature, and to have turned, with eager delight, to deep and quiet solitudes, for refreshment from the feverish excitements, the vexatious defeats, and the barren triumphs of his critical career. He admired Shakspeare, after the fashion of his age, as a wild, irregular genius, who would have been inconceivably greater, had he known and copied the ancients. The following is a part of his general criticism on this subject, and a fair specimen of his best style: “Shakspeare was one of the greatest geniuses that the world ever saw, for the tragic stage. Though he lay under greater disadvantages than any of his successors, yet had he greater and more genuine beauties than the best and greatest of them. And what makes the brightest glory of his character, those beauties were entirely his own, and owing to the force of his own nature; whereas, his faults were owing to his education, and to the age he lived in. One may say of him, as they did of Homer, that he had none to imitate, and is himself inimitable. His imaginations were often as just as they were bold and strong. He had a natural discretion which never could have been taught him, and his judgment was strong and penetrating. He seems to have wanted nothing but time and leisure for thought, to have found out those rules of which he appears so ignorant. His characters are always drawn justly, exactly, graphically, except where he failed by not knowing history
or the poetical art. He had, for the most part, more fairly distinguished them than any of his successors have done, who have falsified them, or confounded them, by making love the predominant quality in all. He had so fine a talent for touching the passions, and they are so lively in him, and so truly in nature, that they often touch us more, without their due preparations, than those of other tragic poets, who have all the beauty of design and all the advantage of incidents. His master passion was terror, which he has often moved so powerfully and so wonderfully, that we may justly conclude, that if he had had the advantage of art and learning, he would have surpassed the very best and strongest of the ancients. His paintings are often so beautiful and so lively, so graceful and so powerful, especially where he uses them in order to move terror, that there is nothing, perhaps, more accomplished in our English poetry. His sentiments for the most part, in his best tragedies, are noble, generous, easy, and natural, and adapted to the persons who use them. His expression is, in many places, good and pure, after a hundred years; simple though elevated, graceful though bold, easy though strong. He seems to have been the very original of our English tragical harmony; that is, the harmony of blank verse, diversified often by dissyllable and trissyllable terminations. For that diversity distinguishes it from heroic harmony, and, bringing it nearer to common use, makes it more proper to gain attention, and more fit for action and dialogue. Such verse we make when we are writing prose; we make such verse in common conversation. “If Shakspeare had these great qualities by nature, what would he not have been, if he had joined to so happy a genius learning and the poetical art. For want of the latter, our author has sometimes made gross mistakes in the characters which he has drawn from history, against the equality and conveniency of manners of his dramatical persons. Witness Menenius in the following tragedy, whom he has made an arrant buffoon, which is a great absurdity. For he might as well have imagined a grave majestic Jack Pudding as a buffoon in a Roman senator. Aufidius, the general of the Volscians, is shown a base and a profligate villain. He has offended against the equality of the manners even in the hero himself. For Coriolanus, who in the first part of the tragedy is shown so open, so frank, so violent, and so magnanimous, is represented in the lattel part by Aufidius, which is contradicted by no one, a flattering, fawning, cringing, insinuating traitor.” Mr. Dennis proceeds very generously to apologize for Shakspeare's faults, by observing that he had neither friends to consult, nor time to make corrections. He, also, attributes his lines “utterly void of celestial fire,” and passages “harsh and unmusical,” to the want of leisure to wait for felicitous hours and moments of choicest inspiration. To remedy these defects—to mend the harmony and to put life into the dulness of Shakspeare—Mr. Dennis has assayed, and brought his own genius to the alteration of Coriolanus for the stage, under the lofty title of the “Invader of
his Country, or the Fatal Resentment.” In the catastrophe, Coriolanus kills Aufidius, and is himself afterwards slain, to satisfy the requisitions of poetical justice; which, to Mr. Dennis's great distress, Shakspeare so often violates. It is quite amusing to observe, with how perverted an ingenuity all the gaps in Shakspeare's verses are filled up, the irregularities smoothed away, and the colloquial expressions changed for stately phrases. Thus, for example, the noble wish of Coriolanus on entering the forum— “The honoured gods Keep Rome in safety. and the chairs of justice Supplied with worthy men! plant love among us!
Throng our large temples with the shows of peace, And not our streets with war"—
is thus elegantly translated into classical language :
“The great and tutelary jo. of Rome
leaving Rome— “Thus I turn my back: there is a world elsewhere.” is elevated into the following heroic lines:
“For me, thus, thus, I turn my back upon you, And make a better world where’er I go.” His fond expression of constancy to his wife— “That kiss
I carried from thee, dear; and my true lip Hath virgined it eer since,”— is thus refined: “That kiss I carried from my lore, and my true lip Hath ever since preserved it like a virgin.” The icicle which was wont to “hang on Dian's temple,” here more gracefully “hangs upon the temple of Diana.” The burst of mingled pride, and triumph of Coriolanus, when taunted with the word “boy,” is here exalted to tragic dignity. Our readers have, doubtless, ignorantly admired the original. Boy! False hound ! If you have writyour annals true, 'tis there, That like an eagle in a dove cote, I
The following is the improved version:
“This boy, that like an eagle in a dove court, Flutter'd a thousand Volsces in Corioli, And did it without second or acquittance, Thus sends their mighty chief to mourn in hell!” Who does not now appreciate the sad lot of Shakspeare—so feelingly bewailed by Mr. Dennis—that he had not a critic, of the age of King William, by his side, to refine his style and elevate his conceptions ! It is edifying to observe, how the canons of Mr. Dennis's criticism, which he regarded as the imperishable laws of genius, are now either exploded, or considered as matters of subordinate importance, wholly unaffecting the inward soul of poetry. No one now regards the merits of an Epic poem, as decided by the subservience of the fable and the action to the moral—by the presence or the absence of an allegory—by the fortunate or unfortunate fate of the hero—or by any other rules of artificial decorum, which the critics of former times thought fit to inculcate. We learn from their essays, whether the works which they examine are constructed, in externals, according to certain fantastic rules; but, whether they are frigid or impassioned, harmonious or prosaic, filled with glorious imaginations, or replete with low common-places: whether, in short, they are works of genius or of mere toil—are questions entirely beneath their concern. The critic on the tragedy of Cato, ingenious and just as it is, omits one material objection to that celebrated piece—that it is good for nothing, and would be so if all the faults selected for censure could be, in an instant, corrected. There is a French essay on Telemachus, framed on the same superficial principles of criticism, which, after a minute examination of the moral, fable, characters, allegory, and other like requisites of excellence, triumphantly proves its claim to be ranked with, if not above, the great poems of Homer and of Virgil. Mr. Dennis seems, in general, to have applied the rules of criticism, extant in his day, to the compositions on which he passed judgment; but there was one position respecting which his contemporaries were not agreed, and on which he combated with the spirit of a martyr. This disputed point, the necessity of observing poetical justice in works of fiction, we shall briefly examine, because we think that it involves one of those mistakes in humanity, which it is always desirable to expose. But first we must, in fairness, lay one of our author's many arguments, on this subject, before our readers. “The principal character of an epic poem must be either morally good or morally vicious; if he is morally good, the making him end unfortunately will destroy all poetical justice, and, consequently, all instruction: such a poem can have no moral, and, consequently, no sable, no just and regular poetical action, but must be a vain fiction and an empty amusement. Oh, but there is a retribution in futurity? But I thought that the reader of an epic poem was to owe his instruction to the poet, and not to himself: well then, the poet may tell him so at the latter end of his poem: ay, would to God I could see such a latter end of an epic poem, where the poet should tell the reader, that he has cut an honest man's throat, only that he may have an opportunity to send him to heaven: and that, though this would be but an indifferent plea upon an indictment for murder at the Old Bailey, yet that he hopes the good-natured reader will have compassion on him, as the gods have on his hero. But raillery apart, sir, what occasion is there for having recourse to an epic poet to tell ourselves by the bye, and by the occasional reflection, that there will be a retribution in futurity, when the Christian has this in his heart constantly and directly, and the Atheist and Freethinker will make no such reflection? Tell me truly, sir, would not such a poet appear to you or me, not to have sufficiently considered what a poetical moral is And should not you or I, sir, be obliged, in order to make him compre
hend the nature of it, to lay before him that universal moral, which is the foundation of all morals, both epic and dramatic, and is inclusive of them all, and that is, That he who does good, and perseveres in it, shall always be rewarded; and he who does ill, and perseveres in it, shall always be punished! Should we not desire him to observe, that the foresaid reward must always attend and crown good actions, not sometimes only, for then it would follow, that sometimes a perseverance in good actions has no reward, which would take away all poetical instruction, and, indeed, every sort of moral instruction, resolving Providence into chance or fate. Should we not, sir, farther put him in mind, that since whoever perseveres in good actions, is sure to be rewarded at the last, it follows, that a poet does not assert by his moral, that he is always sure to be rewarded in this world, because that would be false, as you have very justly observed, p. 60; and, therefore, never can be the moral of an epic poem, because what is false may delude, but only truth can instruct. Should we not let him know, sir, that this universal moral only teaches us, that whoever perseveres in good actions, shall be always sure to be rewarded either here or hereafter; and that the truth of this moral is proved by the poet, by making the principal character of his poem, like all the rest of his characters, and like the poetical action, at the bottom, universal and allegorical, even after distinguishing it by a particular name, by making this principal character, at the bottom, a mere political phantom of a very short duration, through the whole extent of which duration we can see at once, which continues no longer than the reading of the poem, and that being over, the phantom is to us nothing, so that unless our sense is satisfied of the reward that is given to this poetical phantom, whose whole duration we see through from the very beginning to the end; instead of a wholesome moral, there would be a pernicious instruction, viz: That a man may persevere in good actions, and not be rewarded for it through the whole extent of his duration, that is, neither in this world nor in the world to come.” It may be sufficient to answer to all this— and to much more of the same kind which our author has adduced—that little good can be attained by representations which are perpetually at variance with our ordinary perceptions. The poet may represent humanity as mightier and fairer than it appears to a common observer. In the mirror which he “holds up to nature,” the forms of might and of beauty may look more august, more lovely, or more harmonious, than they appear, in the “light of common day,” to eyes which are ungifted with poetic vision. But if the world of imagination is directly opposed to that of reality, it will become a cold abstraction, a baseless dream, a splendid mockery. We shall strive in vain to make men sympathize with beings of a sphere purely ideal, where might shall be always right, and virtue its own present as well as exceeding great reward. Happily, the exhibition is as needless for any moral purposes, as it would be inadequate to attain