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From bard to bard the frigid caution crept,
But who the coming changes can presage,
Then prompt no more the follies you decry,
• Hunt, a famous boxer on the stage ; Mahomet, a ropedancer, who had exhibited at Covent garden theatre the winter before, said to be a Turk.
THE TRAGEDY OF IRENE.
The history of this tragedy's composition is interesting, as affording dates to distinguish Johnson's literary progress. It was begun, and considerably advanced, while he kept a school at Edial, near Lichfield, in 1736. In the following year, when he relinquished the task of a schoolmaster, so little congenial with his mind and disposition, and resolved to seek his fortunes in the metropolis, Irene was carried along with him as a foundation for his success. Mr. Walmsley, one of his early friends, recommended him, and his fellow-adventurer, Garrick, to the notice and protection of Colson, the mathematician. Unless Mrs. Piozzi is correct, in rescuing the character of Colson from any identity with that of Gelidus, in the Rambler , Johnson entertained no lively recollection of his first patron's kindness. He was ever warm in expressions of gratitude for favours, conferred on him in his season of want and obscurity; and from his deep silence here, we may conclude, that the recluse mathematician did not evince much sympathy with the distresses of the young candidate for dramatic fame. Be this, however, as it Johnson, shortly after this introduction, took lodgings at Greenwich, to proceed with his Irene in quiet and retirement, but soon returned to Lichfield, to complete it. The same year that saw these successive disappointments, witnessed also Johnson's return to London, with his tragedy completed, and its rejection by Fleetwood, the patentee, at that time, of Drury lane theatre. Twelve years elapsed, before it was acted, and, after many alterations by his pupil and companion, Garrick, who was then manager of the theatre, it was, by his zeal, and the support of the most eminent performers of the day, carried through a representation of nine nights. Johnson's profits, after the deduction of expenses, and together with the hundred pounds, which he received from Robert Dodsley, for the copy, were nearly three hundred pounds. So fallacious were the hopes cherished by Walmsley, that Johnson would “turn out a fine tragedy writer b."
a Rambler, No. 24, and note.
“ The tragedy of Irene,” says Mr. Murphy, “is founded on a passage in Knolles’s History of the Turks ;” an author highly commended in the Rambler, No. 122. An incident in the life of Mahomet the great, first emperor of the Turks, is the hinge, on which the fable is made to move. The substance of the story is shortly this :—In 1453, Mahomet laid siege to Constantinople, and, having reduced the place, became enamoured of a fair Greek, whose name was Irene. The sultan invited her to embrace the law of the prophet, and to grace his throne. Enraged at this intended marriage, the janizaries formed a conspiracy to dethrone the emperor. To avert the impending danger, Mahomet, in a full assembly of the grandees, “catching, with one hand," as Knolles relates it, "the fair Greek by the hair of her head, and drawing his falchion with the other, he, at one blow, struck off her head, to the great terror of them all; and, having so done, said unto them, “Now, by this, judge whether your emperor is able to bridle his affections or not.” We are not unjust, we conceive, in affirming, that there is an interest kept alive in the plain and simple narrative of the old historian, which is lost in the declamatory tragedy of Johnson.
It is sufficient, for our present purpose, to confess that he has failed in this his only dramatic attempt ; we shall endeavour, more fully, to show how he has failed, in our discussion of his powers as a critic. That they were not blinded to the defects of others, by his own inefficiency in dramatic composition, is fully proved by his judicious remarks on Cato, which was constructed on a plan
Boswell's Life, i.
similar to Irene: and the strongest censure, ever passed on this tragedy, was conveyed in Garrick's application of Johnson's own severe, but correct critique, on the wits of Charles, in whose works
“Declamation roar’d, while passion slept d.” “ Addison speaks the language of poets,” says Johnson, in his preface to Shakespeare, “and Shakespeare of men. We find in Cato innumerable beanties, which enamour us of its author, but we see nothing that acquaints us with human sentiments, or human actions; we place it with the fairest and the noblest progeny which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning; but Othello is the vigorous and vivacious offspring of observation, impregnated by genius. Cato affords a splendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers just and noble sentiments, in diction easy, elevated and harmonious; but its hopes and fears communicate no vibration to the heart : the composition refers us only to the writer ; we pronounce the name of Cato, but we think on Addison.” The critic's remarks on the same tragedy, in his Life of Addison, are as applicable as the above to his own production. “Cato is rather a poem in dialogue than a drama; rather a succession of just sentiments in elegant language, than a representation of natural affections, or of any state probable or possible in human life. Nothing here `excites or assuages emotion:' here is no magical power of raising phantastick terrour or wild anxiety. The events are expected without solicitude, and are remembered without joy or sorrow. Of the agents we have no care; we consider not what they are doing, or what they are suffering; we wish only to know what they have to say.”
But, while we thus pronounce Johnson's failure in the production of dramatic effect, we will not withhold our tribute of admiration from Irene, as a moral piece. For, although a remark of Fox's on an unpublished tragedy of Burke's, that it was rather rhetorical than poetical, may be applied to the work under consideration ; still it abounds, throughout, with the most elevated and dignified lessons of morality, and virtue. The address of Demetrius to the aged Cali, on the dangers of procrastination; Aspasia's reprobation of Irene's meditated apostasyf; and the allusive panegyric on the British constitution 8, may be enumerated, as examples of its excellence in sentiment and diction.
4 Prologue at the opening of Drury lane theatre, 1747.
Lastly, we may consider Isene, as one other illustrious proof, that the most strict adherence to the far-famed unities, the most harmonious versification, and the most correct philosophy, will not vie with a single and simple touch of nature, expressed in simple and artless language. “But how rich in reputation must that author be, who can spare an Irene, and not feel the loss h.”
e Act iü. scene ii. “To-morrow's action !" &c.
h Dr. Young's remark on Addison's Cato. See his Conjectures on Original Composition. Works, vol. v.