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Art. I. A Series of Plays : In which it is attempted to delines
ate the stronger Passions of the Mind. By Joanna Baillie. Vol. III. 8vo. pp. 314. London, 1812.
It is now, we think, something more than nine years since we
first ventured to express our opinion of Miss Baillie's earlier productions; and to raise our warning voice against those narrow and peculiar views of dramatic excellence, by which, it appeared to us, that she had imprudently increased the difficulties of a very difficult undertaking. Notwithstanding this admonition, Miss Baillie has gone on (as we expected) in her own way; and has become (as we expected) both less popular, and less deserving of popularity, in every successive publica
The volume before us, we are afraid, is decidedly inferior to any of her former volumes ; (for we have too much forbearance, or nationality, to say any thing of her single play); at the same time that it contains indications of talent that ought not to be overlooked, and specitiens of excellence, which make it a duty to examine into the causes of its general failure.
We have formerly said almost enough, we believe, of her extraordinary determination to write a tragedy and a comedy upon each of the stronger passions of the mind ;-a scheme so singularly perverse and fantastic, that we father wonder at its having escaped the patronage of the learned professors in the academy of Lagoda ; and in favour of which it would not be easy to say any thing—but that, by good luck, it is utterly impracticable. For, even passing over the captivating originality of comedies on Hatred and Revenge, and tragedies on Hope and Joy, it seems plain enough, that the interest of a play can no more be maintained by the delineation of one passion, than its dialogue and action can be supported by the exertions of one VOL. XIX. NO, 38,
character. It is of the very essence of dramatic composition, to exhibit the play and contention of many and of opposite affections, not only in the different persons it represents, but in the single bosom of its hero; and its chief beauty and excellence consist in the variety of the forms and colours that thus move over its living scenes—in the harmonies and contrasts of the emotions which it successively displays--and in the very multitude and diversity of the impressions to which it gives birth. To substitute, for this, even the most careful and masterly delineation of any one emotion, would not only be to substitute something that was not dramatic, for that which is the essence and the excellence of the drama ;-but to replace this excellence by something most conspicuously inferior—to set before us the studied postures and ostentatious anatomy of one unchanging academy figure, instead of the free action and complicated exertions of groupes engaged in athletic contention-or, rather, to turn our eyes from the innumerable siiades of expression that animate the greater compositions of Raphael or the Caracci, to rivet them on the fantastic and exaggerated features of one of the Passions of Le Brun.
If it be not this, however, that Miss Baillie aims at, then we must say that we cannot discover that there is any thing in the least degree peculiar or original in her system. The chief persons in every play must be actuated by certain passions; and by their influence the catastrophe must necessarily be brought about. In this sense, therefore, every play is a play sions, as much as any of those in the series before us; and all dramatic writers have proceeded upon the very system for which Niss Baillie liere claims the honours of a discovery. It depends, indeed, entirely on the degree of simplicity in the plot, and of unity in the action, as well as on the number of the persons represented, whether the ruling passion of the principal characters shall be brought very conspicuously forward or not. Shakespeare, we believe, will be readily acquitted of the petty-larceny of stealing Miss Baillie's system of dramatising the passions: and yet, ihe Ambition of Nfacbeth, the Jealousy of Othello, and the Melancholy of Hamlet, contribute much more exclusively to the interest of those plays, than any of the passions represented by the writer before us can be said to do to the interest of the picces she has produced as the first-fruits of that system. It may not be so easy, indeed, to specify the affections that are exhibited in many of the other plays of our grcat dramatist-in the Tempest, for example--in King Learin Julius Cæsar-in Cymbeline, or in llenry IV. ; because the plot in all these pieces is more complicated), and the interest more divided. But there seems to be no reasonable ground for doubting that they were composed upon the very same system with the others; and that the interest which they excite depends upon the same general principles. The truth is, however, that common sense and vulgar possibility always appear tame and irglorious, when compared with the splendid pretensions of theorists; and if Miss Baillie meant merely to announce, that she proposed to write plays that should be more like Macbeth and Othello than Cymbeline or the Tempest, the project must be allowed to be both innocent and laudable; and no blame can attach to her, except for the faults of the execution. In considering what are the chief of those faults, we are afraid, however, that it will be found that her system has bad a worse effect than that of merely narrowing the field of her exertions.
on the pasa
here are two sorts of dramatic composition, or at least of tragedy, known in this country :-one, the old classical tragedy of the Grecian stage, modernized according to the French or Continental model; the other, the bold, free, irregular and miscellaneous drama of our own older writers,--or, to speak it more shortly and intelligibly, of Shakespeare. Miss Baillie, it appears to us, kas attempted to unite the excellences of both of these styles ;-and has produced a combination of their defects,
The old Greek tragedy consisted of the representation of some one great, simple, and touching event, brought about by the agency of a very few persons, and detailed in grave, stately, and measured language, interspersed with cloral songs and movements to music. In this primitive form of the drama, the story was commonly unfolded by means of a good deal of plain statement, direct inquiry, and detailed narration ;-while the business was helped forward by means of short and pointed, though frequently very simple and obvious argumentation,-and the interest maintained by pathetic exclamations, and reflections apparently artless and unostentatious. Such, we conceive, was the character of the antient drama; upon the foundation of which, the French, or Continental school, appears obviously to have been built. The chief variations (besides the extinction of the Chorus) secm to be, first, that love has been made to supplant almost all the other passions,—and the tone, accordingly, has become less solemn and severe; secondly, that there is less simple narrative and inquiry, and a great deal more argument or debate-every considerable scene, in fact, being now required to contain a complete and elaborate discussion, to which all the parties must come fully prepared to maintain their respective iheses; and, thirdly, that the topics are drawn, in general, from more extended and philosophical views of human natuer ;
and the state of the feelings set forth with more rhetorical amplification, and with a more anxious and copious minuteness. Notwithstanding those very important distinctions, however, we think ourselves justiñed in arranging the tragic drama of antient Greece, and that of the continent of modern Europe, as productions of the same school; because they will be found to agree in their main and characteristic attributes; because they both require the style and tone to be uniformly grave, lofty, and elaborate—the fable to be simple and direct-and the subject represented, to be weighty and important. Neither of them, consequently, admits of those minute touches of character, which give life and individuality to such delineations; and the interest, in both, rests either on the greatness of the action, and the general propriety and congruity of the sentiments by which it is accompanied--or on the beauty and completeness of the discussion--the poetical graces, the purity and elevation of the language--and the accumulation of bright thoughts and happy expressions which are brought to bear upon the same subject.
Such, we believe, is the idea of dramatic excellence that prevails over the continent of Europe, and such the chief elements which are there admitted to compose it. In this country, however, we are fortunate enough to have a drama of a different description-a drama which aims at a far more exact imitation of nature, and admits of an appeal to a far greater variety of emotions—which requires less dignity or grandeur in its incidents, but deals them out with infinitely greater complication and profusion-which peoples its busy scenes with innumerable characters, and varies its style as freely as it multiplies its persons-which frequently remits the main action, and never exhausts any matter of controversy or discussion-indulges in flights of poetry too lofty for sober interlocutors, and sinks into occasional familiarities too homely for lofty representation-but, still pursuing nature and truth of character and of passion, is perpetually setting before us the express image of individuals whose reality it seems impossible to question, and the thrilling echo of emotions in which we are compelled to sympathize. In illustration of this style, it would be mere pedantry to refer to any other name than that of Shakespeare; who has undoubtedly furnished the most perfect, as well as the most popular examples of its excellence; and who will be found to owe much of his unrivalled power over the attention, the imagination, and the feelings of his readers, to the rich variety of his incidents and images, and to the inimitable truth and minuteness of his crowded characters. Nothing then, it appears, can be more radically different than