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ON THE OLD
ENGLISH DRAMATICK WRITERS. by George Colman. Esqf
TO DAVID GARRICK, Efq.
T is not unnatural to imagine that, on the firft Glance of your Eye over the Advertisement of a new Pamphlet, addreffed to yourself, you are apt to feel fome little Emotion; that you bestow more than ordinary Attention on the Title, as it ftands in the News-Paper, and take Notice of the Name of the Publisher.Is it Compliment or Abuse?---One of thefe being determined, you are perhaps eager to be fatisfied, whether fome coarfe Hand has laid on Encomiums with a Trowel, or fome more elegantWriter(fuch as the Author of The Actor for Inftance) has done Credit to himself and you by his Panegyrick; or, on the other Hand, whether any offended Genius has employed thofe Talents againft you, which he is ambitious of exercising in the Service of your Theatre; or fome common Scribe has taken your Character, as he would that of any other Man or Woman, or Minister, or the King, if he durft, as a popular Topick of Scandal.
Be not alarmed on the prefent Occafion; nor, with that Confcioufnefs of your own Merit, fo natural to the Celebrated and Eminent, indulge yourfelf in an Acquiefcence with the Juftice of ten thoufand fine Things, which you may suppose ready to
be faid to you. No private Satire or Panegyrick, but the general Good of the Republick of Letters, and of the Drama in particular, is intended. Though Praise and Difpraife ftand ready on each Side, like the Veffels of Good and Evil on the Right and Left Hand of Jupiter, I do not mean to dip into either: Or, if I do, it fhall be, like the Pagan Godhead himself, to mingle a due Proportion of each. Sometimes, perhaps, I may find Fault, and fometimes beftow Commendation: But you must not expect to hear of the Quickness of your Conception, the Juftice of your Execution, the Expreffion of your Eye, the Harmony of your Voice, or the Variety and Excellency of your Deportment; nor fhall you be maliciously informed, that you are fhorter than Barry, leaner than Quin, and lefs a Favourite of the Upper Gallery than Woodward or Shuter.
The following Pages are deftined to contain a Vindication of the Works of Mallinger, one of our old Dramatick Writers, who very feldom falls much beneath Shakespeare himself, and fometimes almoft rifes to a proud Rivalship of his chiefeft Excellencies. They are meant too as a laudable, though faint, Attempt to refcue thefe admirable Pieces from the too general Neglect which they now labour under, and to recommend them to the Notice of the Publick. To whom then can fuch an Effay be more properly inferibed than to you, whom that Publick feems to have appointed, as its chief Arbiter Deliciarum, to prefide over the Amufements of the Theatre?-But there is alfo, by the bye, a private Reafon for addreffing you. Your honeft Friend Davies, who, as is faid of the provident Comedian in Holland, fpends his Hours of Vacation from the Theatre in his Shop, is too well acquainted with the Efficacy of your Name at the Top of a Play-Bill, to omit an Opportunity of prefixing it to a new Publication, hoping it may prove a Chart
to draw in Purchafers, like the Head of Shakespeare on his Sign. My Letter too being anonymous, your Name at the Head, will more than compenfate for the Want of mine at the End of it: And our above-mentioned Friend is, no Doubt, too well verfed in both his Occupations, not to know the Confequence of Secrecy in a Bookfeller, as well as the Neceffity of concealing from the Publick many Things that país behind the Curtain.
There is perhaps no Country in the World more fubordinate to the Power of Fashion than our own. Every Whim, every Word, every Vice, every Virțue, in its Turn becomes the Mode, and is followed with a certain Rage of Approbation for a Time. The favourite Stile in all the polite Arts, and the reiguing Tafte in Letters, are as notoriously Objects of Caprice as Architecture and Drefs. A new Poem, or Novel, or Farce, are as inconfiderately extolled or decried as a Ruff or a Chinese Rail, a Hoop or a Bow Window. Hence it happens, that the publick Tafte is often vitiated: Or if, by Chance, it has made a proper Choice, becomes partially attached to one Species of Excellence, and remains dead to the Senfe of all other Merit, however equal, or fuperior.
I think I may venture to affert, with a Confidence, that on Reflection it will appear to be true, that the eminent Class of Writers, who flourished at the Beginning of this Century, have almost entirely fuperfeded their illuftrious Predeceffors. The Works of Congrev, Vanbrugh, Steele, Addifon, Pope, Swift, Gay, &c. &c. are the chief Study of the Million: I fay, of the Million; for as to thofe few, who are not only familiar with all our own Authors, but are alfo converfant with the Ancients, they are not to be circumfcribed by the narrow Limits of the Fafhion. Shakespeare and Milton seem to stand alone, like firstrate Authors, amid the general Wreck of old English Litera
Literature. Milton perhaps owes much of his prefent Fame to the generous Labours and good Tafte of Addifon. Shakespeare has been tranfmitted down to us with fucceffive Glories; and you, Sir, have continued, or rather increased, his Reputation. You have, in no fulfome Strain of Compliment, been filed the Best Commentator on his Works: But have you not, like other Commentators, contracted a narrow, exclufive, Veneration of your Author? Has not the Contemplation of Shakespeare's Excellencies almost dazzled and extinguished your Judgement, when directed to other Objects, and made you blind to the Merit of his Cotemporaries? Under your Dominion, have not Beaumont and Fletcher, nay even Johnjon, fuffered a Kind of thea trical Difgrace? And has not poor Majlinger, whose Caufe I have now undertaken, been permitted to languish in Obfcurity, and remained almost entirely unknown?
To this perhaps it may be plaufibly answered, nor indeed without fome Foundation, that many of our old Plays, though they abound with Beauties, and are raised much above the humble Level of later Writers, are yet, on feveral Accounts, unfit to be exhibited on the modern Stage; that the Fable, inftead of being raised on probable Incidents in real Life, is generally built on fome foreign Novel, and attended with romantick Circumftances; that the Conduct of these extravagant Stories is frequently uncouth, and infinitely offenfive to that dramatick Correctnefs prescribed by late Criticks, and practifed, as they pretend, by the French Writers; and that the Characters, exhibited in our old Plays, can have no pleasing Effect on a modern Audience, as they are fo totally different from the Manners of the prefent Age.
Thefe, and fuch as thefe, might once have appeared reasonable Objections: But you, Sir, of all
Perfons, cari urge them with the leaft Grace, fince your Practice has fo fully proved their Infufficiency. Your Experience must have taught you, that when a Piece has any ftriking Beauties, they will cover a Multitude of Inaccuracies; and that a Play need not be written on the fevereft Plan, to please in the Reprefentation. The Mind is foon familiarized to Irregularities, which do not fin against the Truth of Nature, but are merely Violations of that strict Decorum of late fo earnestly infifted on. What patient Spectators are we of the Inconfiftencies that confeffedly prevail in our darling Shakespeare! What critical Catcall ever proclaimed the Indecency of introducing the Stocks in the Tragedy of Lear? How quietly do we fee Glofter take his imaginary Leap from Dover Cliff! Or to give a ftronger Inftance of Patience, with what a philofophical Calmness do the Audience dofe over the tedious, and uninteresting, Love-Scenes, with which the bungling Hand of Tate has coarfely pieced and patched that rich Work of Shakespeare!-To inftance further from Shakespeare himfelf, the Grave-diggers in Hamlet (not to mention Polonius) are not only endured, but applauded; the very Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is allowed to be Nature; the Tranfactions of a whole Hiftory are, without Offence, begun and compleated in lefs than three Hours; and we are agreeably wafted by the Chorus, or oftener without fo much Ceremony, from one End of the World to another.
It is very true, that it was the general Practice of our old Writers, to found their Pieces on fome foreign Novel; and it seemed to be their chief Aim to take the Story, as it ftood, with all its appendant Incidents of every Complexion, and throw it into Scenes. This Method was, to be fure, rather inartificial, as it at once overloaded and embarraffed the Fable, leaving it deftitute of that beautiful dramatick Connection, which enables the Mind to take in all