John Dryden Excerpt from "Essay Of Dramatick Poesy" (1668)



John Dryden (1631-1700) was an English poet, playwright, and literary critic. His Essay of Dramatick Poesy takes up the subject of Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesy, and argues in favour of drama as an art form. Dryden's characters, in a kind of Platonic dialogue, discuss the methods of playwrights both ancient and modern. Through this dialogue a preference for the achievements of the British emerges.

Excerpt from Essay Of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

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 aught 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 party 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 Wailer; 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 his opinion that the sweetness of English verse was never understood or practised 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 rhyme 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 to discover the failings of his adversary.

He had no sooner said this, but all desired the favour of him to give the definition of a play; and they were the more importunate, because neither Aristotle, nor Horace, nor any other who writ of that subject, had ever done it.

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 human nature, representing its passions and humours, 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, and so not altogether perfect, was yet well received by the rest: and after they had given order to the watermen 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 allthose 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 honours decreed to the professors of it, and consequently the rivalship 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 Æschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Lycophron, and the rest of them, both who they were that vanquished in these wars of the theatre, 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 endeavours.

'But now, since the rewards of honour 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 labour 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 practise 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 which 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; of which none boast in this our age, but such as understand not theirs. Of that book which Aristotle has left us, The Poetics, Horace his Art of Poetry is an excellent comment and, I believe, restores to us that second book of his concerning comedy, which is wanting in him.

'Out of these two [Aristotle and Horace] has been extracted the famous rules which the French call des trois unités, 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 twenty-four hours, the compass of a natural day, or as near as it 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 theatre in a space of time much within the compass of twenty-four 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 an 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 scènes, 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 any 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 laboured 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 Chremes's sister, principally intended by the poet. There ought to be but 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 pass 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 Menander among the Greek poets, and of Cæcilius, Afrarius, 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. Caesar the half-Menander; and of Varius, by the testimonies of Horace, Martial, and Velleius 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 on 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 colours 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.'

Crites had no sooner left speaking, but Eugenius, who waited with some impatience for it, thus began:

'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 laudamus; et præsentia invidia, proeterita admiratione prosequimur; et his nos obrui, illis instrui credimus, 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 cannot 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, imbroils 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 [greek characters] the French le dénouement, and we the discovery or unravelling 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. 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 they succeeded in such undertakings, they ought to have sacrificed to Fortune, not to the Muses.

'Next, for the plot, which Aristotle called [greek characters] and often [greek characters], 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 something 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 a 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 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, was 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 Lucia, fer opem, 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 who 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 strait a compass soever they have bounded their plots and characters, we will pass it 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, however it might be practised by, them, was never any of their rules: we neither find it in Aristotle, Horace, or 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 most regular of them) has neglected: his Heautontimorumenos, or Self-Punisher, takes up visibly two days; therefore, says Scaliger, the two first acts concluding the first day were acted overnight; the three last on the ensuing day; and Euripides, in tying 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 thirty-six verses; that is not for every mile a verse.

'The like error is as evident in Terence his 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 employer un temps si court, 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 scènes, 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 Cremes 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 Phædria enters next, alone likewise: he also gives you an account of himself, and of his returning from the country, in monologue; to which unnatural way of narration Terence is subject in all his plays. In his Adelphi, or Brothers, Syrus and Demea enter after the scene was broken by the departure of Sostrata, Geta, and Canthara; and indeed you can scarce look into any of his comedies, where you will not presently discover the same interruption.

''But as they have failed both in laying of their plots, and managing of them, swerving from the rules of their own art by misrepresenting nature to us, in which they have ill satisfied one intention of a play, which was delight; so in the instructive part they have erred worse: instead of punishing vice and rewarding virtue, they have often shown a prosperous wickedness, and an unhappy piety: they have set before us a bloody image of revenge in Medea, and given her dragons to convey her safe from punishment; a Priam and Astyanax murdered, and Cassandra ravished, and the lust and murder ending in the victory of him who acted them: in short, there is no indecorum in any of our modern plays which, if I would excuse, I could not shadow with some authority from the Ancients.

'And one farther note of them let me leave you: tragedies and comedies were not writ then as they are now, promiscuously, by the same person; but he who found his genius bending to the one, never attempted the other way.

This is so plain, that I need not instance to you that Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, never any of them writ a tragedy; Æschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Seneca, never meddled with comedy: the sock and buskin were not worn by the same poet. Having then so much care to excel in one kind, very little is to be pardoned them if they miscarried in it; and this would lead me to the consideration of their wit, had not Crites given me sufficient warning not to be too bold in my judgment of it; because the languages being dead, and many of the customs and little accidents on which it depended lost to us, we are not competent judges of it. But though I grant that here and there we may miss the application of a proverb or a custom, yet a thing well said will be wit in all languages; and though it may lose something in the translation, yet to him who reads it in the original, 'tis still the same: he has an idea of its excellency, though it cannot pass from his mind into any other expression or words than those in which he finds it. When Phædria, in the Eunuch, had a command from his mistress to be absent two days, and, encouraging himself to go through with it, said, tandem ego non illa caream, si opus sit, vel totum triduum?—Parmeno, to mock the softness of his master, lifting up his hands and eyes, cries out, as it were in admiration, hui! universum triduum! the elegancy of which universum, though it cannot be rendered in our language, yet leaves an impression of the wit upon our souls: but this happens seldom in him; in Plautus oftener, who is infinitely too bold in his metaphors and coining words, out of which many times his wit is nothing; which questionless was one reason why Horace falls upon him so severely in those verses:

sed proavi nostri Plautinos et numeros et laudavere sales, nimium patienter utrumque, ne dicam stolidè

For Horace himself was cautious to obtrude a new word upon his readers and makes custom and common use of best measure of receiving it into our writings:

multa renascentur quae nunc cecidere, cadentque quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si valet usus, quem penes arbitrium est, et jus, et norma loquendi.

''The not observing this rule is that which the world has blamed in our satirist, Cleveland: to express a thing hard and unnaturally, in his new way of elocution. 'Tis true, no poet but

mixtaque ridenti colocasia fundet acantha,

in his eclogue of Pollio; and in his 7th Æneid,

mirantur et undae, miratur nemus insuetum fulgentia longe scuta virum fluvio pictasque innate carinas.

And Ovid once so modestly, that he asks leave to do it:

si verbo audac detur, haud metuam summi dixisse Palatia caeli,

calling the court of Jupiter by the name of Augustus his palace, though in another place he is more bold, where he says et longas visent Capitolia pompas. But to do this always, and never be able to write a line without it, though it may be admired by some few pedants, will not pass upon those who know that wit is best conveyed to us in the most easy language; and is most to be admired when a great thought comes dressed in words so commonly received that it is understood by the meanest apprehensions, as the best meat is the most easily digested: but we cannot read a verse of Cleveland's without making a face at it, as if every word were a pill to swallow: he gives us many times a hard nut to break our teeth, without a kernel for our pains. So that there is this difference betwixt his satires and Doctor Donne's, that the one gives us deep thoughts in common language, though rough cadence; the other gives us common thoughts in abstruse words. 'Tis true, in some places his wit is independent of his words, as in that of the Rebel Scat:

Had Cain been Scat, God would have chang'd his doom; Not forc'd him wander, but confin'd him home.

For beauty like white-powder makes no noise, And yet the silent hypocrite destroys.

You see, the last line is highly metaphorical, but it is so soft and gentle that it does not shock us as we read it.

'But, to return from whence I have digressed to the consideration of the Ancients' writing and their wit (of which by this time you will grant us in some measure to be fit judges), though I see many excellent thoughts in Seneca, yet he of them who had genius most proper for the stage was Ovid; he had a way of writing so fit to stir up a pleasing admiration and concernment, which are the objects of a tragedy, and to show the various movements of a soul combating betwixt two different passions that, had he lived in our age, or in his own could have writ with our advantages, no man but must have yielded to him; and therefore I am confident the Medea is none of his: for, though I esteem it for the gravity and sententiousness of it, which he himself concludes to be suitable to a tragedy, omne genus scripti gravitate tragaedia vincit, yet it moves not my soul enough to judge that he who in the epic way wrote things so near the drama as the story of Myrrha, of Caunus and Biblis, and the rest, should stir up no more concernment where he most endeavoured it. The master-piece of Seneca I hold to be that scene in the Troades where Ulysses is seeking for Astyanax to kill him; there you see the tenderness of a mother so represented in Andromache that it raises compassion to a high degree in the reader, and bears the nearest resemblance of any thing in their tragedies to the excellent scenes of passion in Shakespeare, or in Fletcher: for love-scenes, you will find few among them, their tragic poets dealt not with that soft passion but with lust, cruelty, revenge, ambition, and those bloody actions they produced; which were more capable of raising horror than compassion in an audience: leaving love untouched, whose gentleness would have tempered them, which is the most frequent of all the passions, and which, being the private concernment of every person, is soothed by viewing its own image in a public entertainmen

'Among their comedies, we find a scene or two of tenderness, and that where you would least expect it, in Plautus; but to speak generally, their lovers say little, when they see each other, but anima mea, vita mea; [Greek letters], as the women in Juvenal's time used to cry out in the fury of their kindness: then indeed to speak sense were an offence. Any sudden gust of passion (as an ecstasy of love in an unexpected meeting) cannot better be expressed than in a word and a sigh, breaking one another. Nature is dumb on such occasions, and to make her speak would be to represent her unlike herself. But there are a thousand other concernments of lovers, as jealousies, complaints, contrivances, and the like, where not to open their minds at large to each other were to be wanting to their own love, and to the expectation of the audience; who watch the movements of their minds, as much as the changes of their fortunes. For the imaging of the first is properly the work of a poet; the latter he borrows of the historian.'

Eugenius was proceeding in that part of his discourse, when Crites, interrupted him. 'I see,' said he, 'Eugenius and I are never like to have this question decided betwixt us; for he maintains the Moderns have acquired a new perfection in writing, I can only grant they have altered the mode of it. Homer described his heroes men of great appetites, lovers of beef broiled upon the coals, and good fellows; contrary to the practice of the French romances, whose heroes neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, for love. Virgil makes Æneas a bold avower of his own virtues:

sum pius Æneas, fama super aethera notus;

which in the civility of our poets is the character of a Fanfaron or Hector: for with us the knight takes occasion to walk out, or sleep, to avoid the vanity of telling his own story, which the trusty squire is ever to perform for him. So in their love-scenes, of which Eugenius spoke last, the Ancients were more hearty, we more talkative: they writ love as it was then the mode to make it; and I will grant thus much to Eugenius, that perhaps one of their poets, had he lived in our age,

si foret hoc nostrum fato delapsus in ævum

(as Horace says of Lucilius), he had altered many things; not that they were not as natural before, but that he might accommodate himself to the age he lived in. Yet in the mean time, we are not to conclude any thing rashly against those great men, but preserve to them the dignity of masters, and give that honour to their memories (quos Libitina sacravit) part of which we expect may be paid to us in future times.'

This moderation of Crites, as it was pleasing to all the company, so it put an end to that dispute; which Eugenius, who seemed to have the better of the argument, would urge no farther: but Lisideius, after he had acknowledged himself of Eugenius his opinion concerning the Ancients, yet told him he had forborne, till his discourse were ended, to ask him why he preferred the English plays above, those of other nations; and whether we ought not to submit our stage to the exactness of our next neighbours.

'Though,' said Eugenius, 'I am at all times ready to defend the honour of my country against the French, and to maintain we are as well able to vanquish them with our pens as our ancestors have been with their swords; yet, if you please,' added he, looking upon Neander, 'I will commit this cause to my friend's management; his opinion of our plays is the same with mine: and besides, there is no reason that Crites and I, who have now left the stage, should re-enter so suddenly upon it; which is against the laws of comedy.'

'If the question had been stated,' replied Lisideius, 'who had writ best, the French or English, forty years ago, I should have been of your opinion, and adjudged the honour to our own nation; but since that time', said he (turning towards Neander) 'we have been so long together bad Englishmen, that we had not leisure to be good poets. Beaumont, Fletcher, and Jonson (who were only capable of bringing us to that degree of perfection which we have) were just then leaving the world, as if in an age of so much horror, wit, and those milder studies of humanity, had no farther business among us. But the Muses, who ever follow peace, went to plant in another country: it was then that the great Cardinal of Richelieu began to take them into his protection; and that, by his encouragement, Corneille and some other Frenchmen (reformed their theatre, which before was as much below ours, as it now surpasses it and the rest of Europe. But because Crites in his discourse for the Ancients has prevented me, by touching upon many rules of the stage which the Moderns have borrowed from them, I shall only, in short, demand of you whether you are not convinced that of all nations the French have best observed them. In the unity of time you find them so scrupulous that it yet remains a dispute among their poets whether the artificial day of twelve hours, more or less, be not meant by Aristotle, rather than the natural one of twenty-four; and consequently, whether all plays ought not to be reduced into that compass. This I can testify, that in all their dramas writ within these last twenty years and upwards, I have not observed any that have extended the time to thirty hours: in the unity of place they are full as scrupulous; for many of their critics limit it to that very spot of ground where the play is supposed to begin; none of them exceed the compass of the same town or city,

'The unity of action in all plays is yet more conspicuous, for they do not burden them with under-plots, as the English do; which is the reason why many scenes of our tragi-comedies carry on a design that is nothing of kin to the main plot; and that we see two distinct webs in a play, like those in ill wrought stuffs; and two actions, that is, two plays, carried on together, to the confounding of the audience; who, before they are warm in their concernments for one part, are diverted to another; and by that means espouse the interest of neither. From hence likewise it arises that the one half of our actors are not known to the other. They keep their distances, as if they were Montagues and Capulets, and seldom begin an acquaintance till the last scene of the fifth act, when they are all to meet upon the stage. There is no theatre in the world has any thing so absurd as the English tragi-comedy; 'tis a drama of our own invention, and the. fashion of it is enough to proclaim it so; here a course of mirth, there another of sadness and passion, a third of honour, and fourth a duel: thus, in two hours and a half we run through all the fits of Bedlam. The French affords you as much variety on the same day, but they do it not so unseasonably, or mal à propos, as we: our poets present you the play and the farce together; and our stages still retain somewhat of the original civility of the Red Bull.

atque ursum et pugiles media inter carmina poscunt.

The end of tragedies or serious plays, says Aristotle, is to beget admiration, compassion, or concernment; but are not mirth and compassion things incompatible? and is it not evident that the poet must of necessity destroy the former by intermingling of the latter? that is, he must ruin the sole end and object of his tragedy to introduce somewhat that is forced in, and is not of the body of it. Would you not think that physician mad who, having prescribed a purge, should immediately order you to take restringents upon it?

'But to leave our plays, and return to theirs, I have noted one great advantage they have had in the plotting of their tragedies: that is, they are always grounded upon some known history; according to that of Horace, ex noto fictum carmen sequar; and in that they have so imitated the Ancients that they have surpassed them. For the Ancients, as was observed before, took for the foundation of their plays some poetical fiction such as under that consideration could move the audience, because they already knew the event of it. But the French goes farther:

atque ita mentitur, sic veris falsa remiscet, primo ne medium, medio ne discrepet imum.

He so interweaves truth with probable fiction, that he puts a pleasing fallacy upon us; mends the intrigues of fate, and dispenses with the severity of history, to reward that virtue which has been rendered to us there unfortunate. Sometimes the story has left the success so doubtful, that the writer is free, by the privilege of a poet, to take that which of two or more relations will best suit with his design: as, for example, the death of Cyrus, whom Justin and some others report to have perished in the Scythian war, but Xenophon affirms to have died in his bed of extreme old age. Nay more, when the event is past dispute, even then we are willing to be deceived, find the poet, if he contrives it with appearance of truth, has all the audience of his party; at least during the time his play is acting: so naturally we are kind to virtue, when our own interest is not in question, that we take it up as the general concernment of mankind. On the other side, if you consider the historical plays of Shakespeare, they are rather so many chronicles of kings, or the business many times of thirty or forty years, cramped into a representation of two hours and an half, which is not to imitate or paint nature, but rather to draw her in miniature, to take her in little; to look upon her through the wrong end of a perspective, and receive her images not only much less, but infinitely more imperfect than the life: this, instead of making a play delightful, renders it ridiculous.

quodcumque ostendis mihi sic, incredulus odi.

For the spirit of man cannot be satisfied but with truth, or at least verisimility; and a poem is to contain, if not [greek characters], yet [greek characters], as one of the Greek poets has expressed it.

'Another thing in which the French differ from us and from the Spaniards is that they do not embarrass or cumber themselves with too much plot; they only represent so much of a story as will constitute onc whole and great action sufficient for a play; we, who undertake more, do but multiply adventures; which, not being produced from one another, as effects from causes, but barely following, constitute many actions in the drama, and consequently make it many plays.

'But by pursuing close one argument, which, is not cloyed with many turns, the French have gained more liberty for verse, in which they write; they have leisure to dwell on a subject which deserves it; and to represent the passions (which we have acknowledged to be the poet's work), without being hurried from one thing to another, as we are in the plays of Cal Jerón, which we have seen lately upon our theatres under the name of Spanish plots. I have taken notice but of one tragedy of ours, whose plot has that uniformity and unity of design in it which I have commended in the French; and that is Rollo, or rather, under the name of Rollo, the story of Bassianus and Geta in Herodian: there indeed the plot is neither large nor intricate, but just enough to fill the minds of the audience, not to cloy them. Besides you see it founded upon the truth of history, only the time of the action is not reduceable to the strictness of the rules; and you see in some places a little farce mingled, which is below the dignity of the other parts; and in this all our poets are extremely peccant. Even Ben Jonson himself in Sejanus and Catiline has given us this oleo of a play, this unnatural mixture of comedy and tragedy, which to me sounds just as ridiculously as the history of David with the merry humours of Golias. In Sejantusyou may take notice of the scene betwixt Livia and the physician, which is a pleasant satire upon the artificial helps of beauty; in Catiline you may see the parliament of women, the little envies of them to one another; and all that passes betwixt Curio and Fulvia; scenes admirable in their kind, but of an ill mingle with the rest.

'But I return again to the French writers who, as I have said, do not burden themselves too much with plot, which has been reproached to them by an ingenious person of our nation as a fault, for he says they commonly make but one person considerable in a play; they dwell on him, and his concernments, while the rest of the persons are only subservient to set him off. If he intends this by it, that there is one person in the play who is of greater dignity than the rest, he must tax not only theirs, but those of the Ancients, and which he would be loth to do, the best of ours; for 'tis impossible but that one person must be more conspicuous in it than any other, and consequently the greatest share in the action must devolve on him. We see it so in the management of all affairs; even in the most equal aristocracy, the balance cannot be so justly poised but some one will be superior to the rest, either in parts, fortune, interest, or the consideration of some glorious exploit; which will reduce the greatest part of business into his hands.

'But if he would have us to imagine that in exalting one character the rest of them are neglected, and that all of them have not some share or other in the action of the play, I desire him to produce any of Corneille's tragedies, wherein every person (like so many servants in a well governed family) has not some employment, and who is not necessary to the carrying on of the plot, or at least to your understanding it.

'There are indeed some protatic persons in the Ancients, whom they make use of in their plays, either to hear or give the relation: but the French avoid this with great address, making their narrations only to, or by, such who are some way interested in the main design. And now I am speaking of relations, I cannot take a fitter opportunity to add this in favour of the French, that they often use them with better judgment and more a propos than the English do. Not that I commend narrations in general, but there are two sorts of them: one, of those things which are antecedent to the play, and are related to make the conduct of it more clear to us; but 'tis a fault to choose such subjects for the stage which will inforce us on that rock, because we see they are seldom listened to by the audience, and that is many times the ruin of the play. For, being once let pass without attention, the audience can never recover themselves to understand the plot; and indeed it is somewhat unreasonable that they should be put to so much trouble as, that to comprehend what passes in their sight, they must have recourse to what was done, perhaps, ten or twenty years ago.

'But there is another sort of relations, that is, of things happening in the action of the play, and supposed to be done behind the scenes; and this is many times both convenient and beautiful; for by it the French avoid the tumult which we are subject to in England by representing duels, battles, and the like; which renders our stage too like the theatres where they fight prizes. For what is more ridiculous than to represent an army with a drum and five men behind it, all which the hero of the other side is to drive in before him; or to see a duel fought, and one slain with two or three thrusts of the foils, which we know are so blunted that we might give a man an hour to kill another in good earnest with them.

'I have observed that, in all our tragedies, the audience cannot forbear laughing when the actors are to die; 'tis the most comic part of the whole play. All passions may be lively represented on the stage, if to the well-writing of them the actor supplies a good commanded voice, and limbs that move easily, and without stiffness; but there are many actions which can never be imitated to a just height: dying especially is a thing which none but a Roman gladiator could naturally perform on the stage, when he did not imitate or represent, but naturally do it; and therefore it is better to omit the representation of it.

'The words of a good writer, which describe it lively, will make a deeper impression of belief in us than all the actor can persuade us to when he seems to fall dead before us; as a poet in the description of a beautiful garden, or a meadow, will please our imagination more than the place itself can please our sight. When we see death represented, we are convinced it is but fiction; but when we hear it related, our eyes (the strongest witnesses) are wanting, which might have undeceived us, and we are all willing to favour the sleight when the poet does not too grossly impose on us. They, therefore, who imagine these relations would make no concernment in the audience, are deceived by confounding them with the other, which are of things antecedent to the play: those are made often in cold blood (as I may say) to the audience; but these are warmed with our concernments, which are before awakened in the play. What the philosophers say of motion, that when it is once begun it continues of itself, and will do so to eternity without some stop put to it, is clearly true on this occasion: the soul, being already moved with the characters and fortunes of those imaginary persons, continues going of its own accord; and we are no more weary to hear what becomes of them when they are not on the stage than we are to listen to the news of an absent mistress. But it is objected that if one part of the play may be related, then why not all? I answer, some parts of the action are more fit to be represented, some to be related. Corneille says judiciously that the poet is not obliged to expose to view all particular actions which conduce to the principal: he ought to select such of them to be seen which will appear with the greatest beauty, either by the magnificence of the show, or the vehemence of passions which they produce, or some other charm which they have in them, and let the rest arrive to the audience by narration. 'Tis a great mistake in us to believe the French present no part of the action on the stage: every alteration or crossing of a design, every new-sprung passion, and turn of it, is a part of the action, and much the noblest, except we conceive nothing to be action till they come to blows; as if the painting of the hero's mind were not more properly the poet's work than the strength of his body. Nor does this anything contradict the opinion of Horace, where he tells us,

senius irritant animos demissa per aurem, quam quæ sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus.

For he says immediately after,

non tamen intus digna geri promes in sænam; multaque tolles ex oculis, quæ mox narret facundia præsens.

Among which many he recounts some:

nec pueros coram populo Medea trucidet, aut in avem Procne mutetur, Cadmus in anguem, &c.

That is, those actions which by reason of their cruelty will cause aversion in us or, by reason of their impossibility, unbelief, ought either wholly to be avoided by a poet, or only delivered by narration. To which we may have leave to add such as to avoid tumult (as was before hinted), or to reduce the plot into a more reasonable compass of time, or for defect of beauty in them, are rather to be related than presented to the eye. Examples of all these kinds are frequent, not only among all the Ancients, but in the best received of our English poets. We find Ben Jonson using them in his Magnetic Lady, where one comes out from dinner, and relates the quarrels and disorders of it to save the undecent appearance of them on the stage, and to abbreviate the story; and this in express imitation of Terence, who had done the same before him in his Eunuch, where Pythias makes the like relation of what had happened within at the soldiers' entertainment. The relations likewise of Sejanus's death, and the prodigies before it, are remarkable; the one of which was hid from sight, to avoid the horror and tumult of the representation; the other, to shun the introducing of things impossible to be believed. In that excellent play the King and No King Fletcher goes yet farther: for the whole unravelling of the plot is done by narration in the fifth act, after the manner of the Ancients; and it moves great concernment in the audience, though it be only a relation of what was done many years before the play. I could multiply other instances, but these are sufficient to prove that there is no error in choosing a subject which requires this sort of narrations; in the ill managing of them, there may.

'But I find I have been too long in this discourse, since the French have many other excellencies not common to us, as that you never see any of their plays end with a conversion, or simple change of will, which is the ordinary way which our poets use to end theirs. It shows little art in the conclusion of a dramatic poem when they, who have hindered the felicity during the four acts, desist from it in the fifth, without some powerful cause to take them off; and though I deny not but such reasons may be found, yet it is a path that is cautiously to be trod, and the poet is to be sure he convinces the audience that the motive is strong enough. As for example, the conversion of the usurer in The Scornful Lady seems to me a little forced; for, being an usurer, which implies a lover of money to the highest degree of covetousness (and such the poet has represented him), the account he gives for the sudden change is, that he has been duped by the wild young fellow, which in reason might render him more wary another time, and make him punish himself with harder fare and coarser clothes to get it up again; but that he should look on it as a judgment, and so repent, we may expect to hear of in a sermon, but I should never endure it in a play.

'I pass by this: neither will I insist on the care they take that no person after his first entrance shall ever appear but the business which brings him upon the stage shall be evident; which, if observed, must needs render all the events in the play more natural; for there you see the probability of every accident, in the cause that produced it; and that which appears chance in the play, will seem so reasonable to you that you will there find it almost necessary; so that in the exits of the actors you have a clear account of their purpose and design in the next entrance (though, if the scene be well wrought, the event will commonly deceive you), for there is nothing so absurd, says Corneille, as for an actor to leave the stage only because he has no more to say.

'I should now speak of the beauty of their rhyme, and the just reason I have to prefer that way of writing in tragedies before ours in blank verse; but because it is partly received by us, and therefore not altogether peculiar to them, I will say no more of it in relation to their plays. For our own, I doubt not but it will exceedingly beautify them, and I can see but one reason why it should not generally obtain, that is, because our poets write so ill in it. This, indeed, may prove a more prevailing argument than all others which are used to destroy it, and therefore I am only troubled when great and judicious poets, and those who are acknowledged such, have writ or spoke against it; as for others, they are to be answered by that one sentence of an ancient author: 'sed ut primo ad consequendos eos quos priores ducimus, accendimur, ita ubi aut præteriri, aut æquari eos posse desperavimus, studium cum spe senescit: quod, scilicet, assequi non potest, sequi desinit;…præteritoque eo in quo eminere non possumus, aliquid in quo nitamur, conquirimus.'

Lisideius concluded in this manner; and Neander, after a little pause, thus answered him:

'I shall grant Lisideius, without much dispute, a great part of what he has urged against us, for I acknowledge the French contrive their plots more regularly, observe the laws of comedy, and decorum of the stage (to speak generally), with more exactness than the English. Farther, I deny not but he has taxed us justly in some irregularities of ours which he has mentioned; yet, after all, I am of opinion that neither our faults nor their virtues are considerable enough to place them above us.

'For the lively imitation of nature being in the definition of a play, those which best fulfil that law ought to be esteemed superior to the others. 'Tis true, those beauties of the French poesy are such as will raise perfection higher where it is, but are not sufficient to give it where it is not: they are indeed the beauties of a statue, but not of a man, because not animated with the soul of poesy, which is imitation of humour and passions; and this Lisideius himself, or any other, however biassed to their party, cannot but acknowledge, if he will either compare the humours of our comedies, or the characters of our serious plays, with theirs. He that will look upon theirs which have been written till these last ten years, or thereabouts, will find it an hard matter to pick out two or three passable humours amongst them. Corneille himself, their arch-poet, what has he produced except The Liar, and you know how it was cried up in France; but when it came upon the English stage, though well translated, and that part of Dorant acted to so much advantage by Mr Hart as I am confident it never received in its own country, the most favourable to it would not put it in competition with many of Fletcher's or Ben Jonson's. In the rest of Corneille's comedies you have little humour; he tells you himself his way is, first to show two lovers in good intelligence with each other; in the working up of the play to embroil them by some mistake, and in the latter end to clear it up.

'But of late years Molière, the younger Corneille, Quinault, and some others, have been imitating afar off the quick turns and graces of the English stage. They have mixed their serious plays with mirth, like our tragi-comedies, since the death of Cardinal Richelieu; which Lisideius and many others not observing, have commended that in them for a virtue which they themselves no longer practise, Most of their new plays are, like some of ours, derived from the Spanish novels. There is scarce one of them without a veil, and a trusty Diego, who drolls much after the rate of the Adventures. But their humours, if I may grace them with that name, are so thin sown that never above one of them comes up jn any play. I dare take upon me to find more variety of them in some one play of Ben Jonson's than in all theirs together; as he who has seen The Alchemist, The Silent Woman or Bartholomew-Fair, cannot but acknowledge with me.

'I grant the French have performed what was possible on the ground-work of the Spanish plays; what was pleasant before, they have made regular; but there is not above one good play to be writ upon all those plots; they are too much alike to please often, which we need not the experience of our own stage to justify. As for their new way of mingling mirth with serious plot, I do not with Lisideius condemn the thing, though I cannot approve their manner of doing it. He tells us we cannot so speedily recollect ourselves after a scene of great passion and concernment as to pass to another of mirth and humour, and to enjoy it with any relish: but why should he imagine the soul of man more heavy than his senses? Does not the eye pass from an unpleasant object to a pleasant in a much shorter time than is required to this? and does not the unpleasantness of the first commend the beauty of the latter? The old rule of logic might have convinced him that contraries, when placed near, set off each other. A continued gravity keeps the spirit too much bent; we must refresh it sometimes, as we bait upon a journey, that we may go on with greater ease. A scene of mirth mixed with tragedy has the same effect upon us which our music has betwixt the acts; and that we find a relief to us from the best plots and language of the stage, if the discourses have been long. I must therefore have stronger arguments ere I am convinced that compassion and mirth in the same subject destroy each other; and in the mean time cannot but conclude, to the honour of our nation, that we have invented, increased, and perfected a more pleasant way of writing for the stage than was ever known to the ancients or moderns of any nation, which is tragi-comedy.

'And this leads me to wonder why Lisideius and many others should cry up the barrenness of the French plots above the variety and copiousness of the English. Their plots are single, they carry on one design which is pushed forward by all the actors, every scene in the play contributing and moving towards it: ours, besides the main design, have under-plots or by-concernments of less considerable persons and intrigues, which are carried on with the motion of the main plot; just as they say the orb of the fixed stars, and those of the planets, though they have motions of their own, are whirled about by the motion of the primum mobile, in which they are contained. That similitude expresses much of the English state; for if contrary motions may be found in nature to agree, if a planet can go east and west at the same time, one way by virtue of his own motion, the other by the force of the First Mover, it will not be difficult to imagine how the under-plot, which is only different, not contrary to the great design, may naturally be conducted along with it.

'Eugenius has already shewn us, from the confession of the French poets, that the unity of action is sufficiently preserved if all the imperfect actions of the play are conducing to the main design; but when those petty intrigues of a play are so ill ordered that they have no coherence with the other, I must grant Lisideius has reason to tax that want of due connexion; for co-ordination in a play is as dangerous and unnatural as in a State. In the mean time he must acknowledge our variety, if well ordered, will afford a greater pleasure to the audience.

'As for his other argument, that by pursuing one single theme they gain an advantage to express and work up the passions, I wish any example he could bring from them could make it good: for I confess their verses are to me the coldest I have ever read. Neither, indeed, is it possible for them, in the way they take, so to express passion as that the effects of it should appear in the concernment of an audience: their speeches being so many declamations, which tire us with the length; so that instead of persuading us to grieve for their imaginary heroes, we are concerned for our own trouble, as we are in the tedious visits of bad company; we are in pain till they are gone. When the French stage came to be reformed by Cardinal Richelieu, those long harangues were introduced to comply with the gravity of a churchman. Look upon the Cinna and the Pompey; they are not so properly to be called plays as long discourses of reason of State; and Polyeucte in matters of religion is as solemn as the long stops upon our organs. Since that time it is grown into a custom, and their actors speak by the hourglass, as our parsons do; nay, they account it the grace of their parts, and think themselves disparaged by the poet, if they may not twice or thrice in a play entertain the audience with a speech of an hundred or two hundred lines. I deny not but this may suit well enough with the French; for as we, who are a more sullen people, come to be diverted at our plays; they, who are of an airy and gay temper, come thither to make themselves more serious; and this I conceive to be one reason why comedy is more pleasing to us, and tragedies to them. But to speak generally, it cannot be denied that short speeches and replies are more apt to move the passions and beget concernment in us than the other: for it is unnatural for any one in a gust of passion to speak long together, or for another in the same condition to suffer him without interruption. Grief and passion are like floods raised in little brooks by a sudden rain; they are quickly up; and if the concernment be poured unexpectedly in upon us, it overflows us: but a long, sober shower gives them leisure to run out as they came in, without troubling the ordinary current. As for comedy, repartee is one of its chiefest graces; the greatest pleasure of the audience is a chase of wit kept up on both sides, and swiftly managed. And this our forefathers, if not we, have had in Fletcher's plays, to a much higher degree of perfection than the French poets can arrive at.

'There is another part of Lisideius his discourse, in which he has rather excused our neighbours than commended them; that is, for aiming only to make one person considerable in their plays. 'Tis very true what he has urged, that one character in all plays, even without the poet's care, will have advantage of all the others; and that the design of the whole drama will chiefly depend on it. But this hinders not that there may be more shining characters in the play: many persons of a second magnitude, nay, some so very near, so almost equal to the first, that greatness may be opposed to greatness, and all the persons be made considerable, not only by their quality but their action. 'Tis evident that the more the persons are, the greater will be the variety of the plot. If then the parts are managed so regularly that the beauty of the whole be kept entire, and that the variety become not a perplexed and confused mass of accidents, you will find it infinitely pleasing to be led in a labyrinth of design, where you see some of your way before you, yet discern not the end till you arrive at it. And, that all this is practicable, I can produce for examples many of our English plays: as The Maid's Tragedy, The Alchemist, The Silent Woman: I was going to have named The Fox, but that the unity of design seems not exactly observed in it; for there appears two actions in the play; the first naturally ending with the fourth act; the second forced from it in the fifth: which yet is the less to be condemned in him, because the disguise of Volpone, though it suited not with his character as a crafty or covetous person, agreed well enough with that of a voluptuary; and by it the poet gained the end he aimed at, the punishment of vice, and the reward of virtue, which that disguise produced. So that to judge equally of it, it was an excellent fifth act, but not so naturally proceeding from the former.

'But to leave this, and pass to the latter part of Lisideius his discourse, which concerns relations, I must acknowledge with him that the French have reason when they hide that part of the action which would occasion too much tumult upon the stage, and choose rather to have it made known by narration to the audience. Farther, I think it very convenient, for the reasons he has given, that all incredible actions were removed; but whether custom has so insinuated itself into our countrymen, or nature has so formed them to fierceness, I know not; but they will scarcely suffer combats and other objects of horror to be taken from them. And indeed, the indecency of tumults is all which can be objected against fighting: for why may not our imagination as well suffer itself to be deluded with the probability of it, as with any other thing in the play? For my part, I can with as great ease persuade myself that the blows which are struck are given in good earnest, as I can that they who strike them are kings or princes, or those persons which they represent. For objects of incredibility, I would be satisfied from Lisideius, whether we have any so removed from all appearance of truth as are those of Corneille's Andromède, a play which has been frequented the most of any he has writ. If the Perseus, or the son of an heathen god, the Pegasus, and the Monster, were not capable to choke a strong belief, let him blame any representation of ours hereafter. Those indeed were objects of delight; yet the reason is the same as to the probability: for he makes it not a ballette or masque, but a play, which is to resemble truth. But for death, that it ought not to be represented, I have, besides the arguments alleged by Lisideius, the authority of Ben Jonson, who has forborne it in his tragedies; for both the death of Sejanus and Catiline are related; though in the latter I cannot but observe one irregularity of that great poet: he has removed the scene in the same act from Rome to Catiline's army, and from thence again to Rome; and besides, has allowed a very inconsiderable time, after Catiline's for the striking of the battle, and the return of Petreius, who is to relate the event of it to the Senate: which I should not animadvert on him, who was otherwise a painful observer of [greek characters], or the decorum of the stage, if he had not used extreme severity in his judgment on the incomparable Shakespeare for the same fault. To conclude on this subject of relations, if we are to be blamed for showing too much of the action, the French are as faulty for discovering too little of it: a mean betwixt both should be observed by every judicious writer, so as the audience may neither be left unsatisfied by not seeing what is beautiful, or shocked by beholding what is either incredible or undecent.

'I hope I have already proved in this discourse that, though we are not altogether so punctual as the French in observing the laws of comedy, yet our errors are so few, and little, and those things wherein we excel them so considerable, that we ought of right to be preferred before them. But what will Lisideius say, if they themselves acknowledge they are too strictly tied up by those laws for breaking which he has blamed the English? I will allege Corneille's words, as I find them in the end of his 'Discourse of the Three Unities': Il est facile aux spéculatifs d'estre sévères,&c. ''Tis easy for speculative persons to judge severely; but if they would produce to public view ten or twelve pieces of this nature, they would perhaps give more latitude to the rules than I have done, when by experience they had known how much we are bound up and constrained by them, and how many beauties of the stage they banished from it.' To illustrate a little what he has said, by their servile observations of the unities of time and place, and integrity of scenes, they have brought on themselves that dearth of plot, and narrowness of imagination, which may be observed in all their plays. How many beautiful accidents might naturally happen in two or three days, which cannot arrive with any probability in the compass of twenty-four hours? There is time to be allowed also for maturity of design which, amongst great and prudent persons such as are often represented in tragedy, cannot, with any likelihood of truth, be brought to pass at so short a warning. Farther, by tying themselves strictly to the unity of place and unbroken scenes, they are forced many times to omit some beauties which cannot be shown where the act began; but might, if the scene were interrupted, and the stage cleared for the persons to enter in another place; and therefore the French poets are often forced upon absurdities: for if the act begins in a chamber, all the persons in the play must have some business or other to come thither, or else they are not to be shown that act, and sometimes their characters are very unfitting to appear there. As, suppose it were the King's bedchamber, yet the meanest man in the tragedy must come and dispatch his business there, rather than in the lobby or courtyard (which is fitter for him), for fear the stage should be cleared and the scenes broken. Many times they fall by it into a greater inconvenience; for they keep their scenes unbroken, and yet change the place; as in one of their newest plays, where the act begins in the street. There a gentleman is to meet his friend; he sees him with his man, coming out from his father's house; they talk together, and the first goes out: the second, who is a lover, has made an appointment with his mistress; she appears at the window, and then we are to imagine the scene lies under it. This gentleman is called away, and leaves his servant with his mistress; presently her father is heard from within; the young lady is afraid the servingman should be discovered, and thrusts him in through a door which is supposed to be her closet. After this, the father enters to the daughter, and now the scene is in a house; for he is seeking from one room to another for this poor Philipin, or French Diego, who is heard from within, drolling and breaking many a miserable conceit upon his sad condition. In this ridiculous manner the play goes on, the stage being never empty all the while: so that the street, the window, the two houses, and the closet, are made to walk about, and the persons to stand still. Now what, I beseech you, is more easy than to write a regular French play, or more difficult than write an irregular English one, like those of Fletcher or of Shakespeare?

'If they content themselves, as Corneille did, with some flat design which, like an ill riddle, is found out ere it be half proposed; such plots we can make every way regular, as easily as they; but whene'er they endeavour to rise to any quick turns and counterturns of plot, as some of them have attempted since Corneille's plays have been less in vogue, you see they write as irregularly as we, though they cover it more speciously. Hence the reason is perspicuous why no French plays, when translated, have, or ever can succeed upon the English stage. For if you consider the plots, our own are fuller of variety; if the writing, ours are more quick and fuller of spirit; and therefore 'tis a strange mistake in those who decry the way of writing plays in verse, as if the English therein imitated the French. We have borrowed nothing from them; our plots are weaved in English looms: we endeavour therein to follow the variety and greatness of characters which are derived to us from Shakespeare and Fletcher; the copiousness and well-knitting of the intrigues we have from Jonson; and for the verse itself we have English precedents of elder date than any of Corneille's plays: (not to name our old comedies before Shakespeare, which were all writ in verse of six feet, or alexandrines, such as the French now use.) I can show in Shakespeare many scenes of rhyme together, and the like in Ben Jonson's tragedies: in Catiline and Sejanus sometimes thirty or forty lines, I mean besides the Chorus, or the monologues, which, by the way, showed Ben no enemy to this way of writing, especially if you look upon his Sad Shepherd, which goes sometimes upon rhyme, sometimes upon blank verse, like an horse who eases himself upon trot and amble. You find him likewise commending Fletcher's pastoral of The Faithful Shepherdess, which is for the most part rhyme, though not refined to that purity to which it hath since been brought. And these examples are enough to clear us from a servile imitation of the French.

'But to return from whence I have digressed, I dare boldly affirm these two things of the English drama: first, that we have many plays of ours as regular as any of theirs, and which, besides, have more variety of plot and characters; and secondly, that in most of the irregular plays of Shakespeare or Fletcher (for Ben Jonson's are for the most part regular) there is a more masculine fancy and greater spirit in the writing than there is in any of the French. I could produce, even in Shakespeare's and Fletcher's works, some plays which are almost exactly formed; as The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Scornful Lady; but because (generally speaking) Shakespeare, who writ first, did not perfectly observe the laws of comedy, and Fletcher, who came nearer to perfection, yet through carelessness made many faults, I will take the pattern of a perfect play from Ben Jonson, who was a careful and learned observer of the dramatic laws, and from all his comedies I shall select The Silent Woman; of which I will make a short examen, according to those rules which the French observe.'

As Neander was beginning to examine The Silent Woman, Eugenius, looking earnestly upon him: 'I beseech you, Neander,' said he, 'gratify the company and me in particular so far as, before you speak of the play, to give us a character of the author; and tell us frankly your opinion whether you do not think all writers, both French and English, ought to give place to him.'

'I fear,' replied Neander, 'that in obeying your commands I shall draw a little envy upon myself. Besides, in performing them, it will be first necessary to speak somewhat of Shakespeare and Fletcher, his rivals in poesy; and one of them, in my opinion, at least his equal, perhaps his superior.

'To begin, then, with Shakespeare: he was the man who of all moderns, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily; when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read. nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is every where alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great when some great occasion is presented to him; no man can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of poets,

quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.

The consideration of this made Mr Hales of Eton say that there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better treated of in Shakespeare; and however others are now generally preferred before him, yet the age wherein he lived, which had contemporaries with him Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them to him in their esteem. And in the last King's court, when Ben's reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the courtiers, set our Shakespeare far above him.

'Beaumont and Fletcher, of whom I am next to speak, had, with the advantage of Shakespeare's wit, which was their precedent, great natural gifts improved by study; Beaumont especially being so accurate a judge of plays that Ben Jonson, while he lived, submitted all his writing to his censure, and, 'tis thought, used his judgment in correcting, if not contriving, all his plots. What value he had for him, appears by the verses he writ to him; and therefore I need speak no farther of it. The first play which brought Fletcher and him in esteem was their Philaster: for before that, they had written two or three very unsuccessfully, as the like is reported of Ben Jonson before he writ Every Man in his Humour. Their plots were generally more regular than Shakespeare's, especially those which were made before Beaumont's death; and they understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better; whose wild debaucheries, and quickness of wit in repartees, no poet can ever paint as they have done. This humour of which Ben Jonson derived from particular persons, they made it not their business to describe: they represented all the passions very lively, but above all love. I am apt to believe the English language in them arrived to its highest perfection: what words have since been taken in, are rather superfluous than necessary. Their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage; two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's: the reason is because there is a certain gaiety in their comedies, and pathos in their more serious plays, which suits generally with all men's humours. Shakespeare's language is likewise a little obsolete, and Ben Jonson's wit comes short of theirs.

'As for Jonson, to whose character I am now arrived, if we look upon him while he was himself (for his last plays were but his dotages), I think him the most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had. He was a most severe judge of himself as well as others. One cannot say he wanted wit, but rather that he was frugal of it. In his works you find little to retrench or alter. Wit, and language, and humour also in some measure, we had before him; but something of art was wanting to the drama till he came. He managed his strength to more advantage than any who preceded him. You seldom find him making love in any of his scenes, or endeavouring to move the passions; his genius was too sullen and saturnine to do it gracefully, especially when he knew he came after those who had performed both to such an height. Humour was his proper sphere; and in that he delighted most to represent mechanic people. He was deeply conversant in the Ancients, both Greek and Latin, and he borrowed boldly from them: there is scarce a poet or historian among the Roman authors of those times whom he has not translated in Sejanus and Catiline. But he has done his robberies so openly that one may see he fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a monarch, and what would be theft in other poets is only victory in him. With the spoils of these writers he so represents old Rome to us, in its rites, ceremonies, and customs, that if one of their poets had written either of his tragedies, we had seen less of it than in him. If there was any fault in his language, 'twas that he weaved it too closely and laboriously in his serious plays: perhaps, too, he did a little too much romanize our tongue, leaving the words which he translated almost as much Latin as he found them: wherein, though he learnedly followed the idiom of their language, he did not enough, comply with ours. If I would compare him with Shakespeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing; I admire him, but I love Shakespeare. To conclude of him, as he has given us the most correct plays, so in the precepts which he has laid down in his Discoveries, we have as many and profitable rules for perfecting the stage as any wherewith the French can furnish us.

'Having thus spoken of the author, I proceed to the examination of his comedy, The Silent Woman.

Examen of the Silent Woman.

'To begin first with the length of the action, it is so far from exceeding the compass of a natural day that it takes not up an artificial one. 'Tis all included in the limits of three hours and an half, which is no more than is required for the presentment on the stage. A beauty perhaps not much observed; if it had, we should not have looked on the Spanish translation of Five Hours with so much wonder. The scene of it is laid in London; the latitude of place is almost as little as you can imagine: for it lies all within the compass of two houses, and after the first act in one. The continuity of scenes is observed more than in any of our plays, excepting his own Fox and Alchemist. They are not broken above twice or thrice at most in the whole comedy; and in the two best of Corneille's plays, the Cid and Cinna, they are interrupted once apiece. The action of the play is entirely one; the end or aim of which is the settling Morose's estate on Dauphine. The intrigue of it is the greatest and most noble of any pure unmixed comedy in any language; you see in it many persons of various characters and humours, and all delightful: as first, Morose, or an old man,.to whom all noise but his own talking is offensive. Some who would be thought critics say this humour of his is forced: but to remove that objection, we may consider him first to be naturally of a delicate hearing, as many are to whom all sharp sounds are unpleasant; and secondly, we may attribute much of it to the peevishness of his age, or the wayward authority of an old man in his own house, where he may make himself obeyed; and this the poet seems to allude to in his name Morose. Besides this, I am assured from divers persons that Ben Jonson was actually acquainted with such a man, one altogether as ridiculous as he is here represented. Others say it is not enough to find one man of such an humour; it must be common to more, and the more common the more natural. To prove this, they instance in the best of comical characters, Falstaff: there are many men resembling him; old, fat, merry, cowardly, drunken, amorous, vain, and lying. But to convince these people, I need but tell them that humour is the ridiculous extravagance of conversation, wherein one man differs from all others. If then it be common, or communicated, to many, how differs it from other men's? or what indeed causes it to be ridiculous so much as the singularity of it? As for Falstaff, he is not properly one humour, but a miscellany of humours or images, drawn from so many several men: that wherein he is singular is his wit, or those things he says præter expectatum, unexpected by the audience; his quick evasions when you imagine him surprised, which, as they are extremely diverting of themselves, so receive a great addition from his person; for the very sight of such an unwieldy, old, debauched fellow is a comedy alone. And here, having a place so proper for it, I cannot but enlarge somewhat upon this subject of humour into which I am fallen. The Ancients had little of it in their comedies; for the [Greek letters] of the Old Comedy, of which Aristophanes was chief, was not so much to imitate a man as to make the people laugh at some odd conceit which had commonly somewhat of unnatural or obscene in it. Thus, when you see Socrates brought upon the stage, you are not to imagine him made ridiculous by the imitation of his actions, but rather by making him perform something very unlike himself: something so childish and absurd as, by comparing it with the gravity of the true Socrates, makes a ridiculous object for the spectators. In their New Comedy, which succeeded, the poets sought indeed to express the [greek characters], as in their tragedies the [greek characters] of mankind. But this [greek characters] contained only the general characters of men and manners; as old men, lovers, serving-men, courtesans, parasites, and such other persons as we see in their comedies; all which they made alike: that is, one old man or father, one lover, one courtesan, so like another as if the first of them had begot the rest of every sort: ex homine hunc natum dicas . The same custom they observed likewise in their tragedies. As for the French, though they have the word humeur among them, yet they have small use of it in their comedies or farces; they being but ill imitations of the ridiculum, or that which stirred up laughter in the Old Comedy. But among the English 'tis otherwise: where by humour is meant some extravagant habit, passion, or affection, particular (as I said before) to some one person, by the oddness of which he is immediately distinguished from the rest of men; which being lively and naturally represented, most frequently begets that malicious pleasure in the audience which is testified by laughter; as all things which are deviations from common customs are ever the aptest to produce it: though, by the way, this laughter is only accidental, as the person represented is fantastic or bizarre; but pleasure is essential to it, as the imitation of what is natural. The description of these humours, drawn from the knowledge and observation of particular persons, was the peculiar genius and talent of Ben Jonson; to whose play I now return.

'Besides Morose, there are at least nine or ten different characters and humours in The Silent Woman , all which persons have several concernments of their own, yet are all used by the poet to the conducting of the main design to perfection. I shall not waste time in commending the writing of this play, but I will give you my opinion that there is more wit and acuteness of fancy in it than in any of Ben Jonson's. Besides, that he has here described the conversation of gentlemen in the persons of True-Wit and his friends, with more gaiety, air, and freedom, than in the rest of his comedies. For the contrivance of the plot, 'tis extreme elaborate, and yet withal easy; for the untying of it, 'tis so admirable that, when it is done, no one of the audience would think the poet could have missed it; and yet it was concealed so much before the last scene that any other way would sooner have entered into your thoughts. But I dare not take upon me to commend the fabric of it, because it is altogether so full of art that I must unravel every scene in it to commend it as I ought. And this excellent contrivance is still the more to be admired because 'tis comedy, where the persons are only of common rank, and their business private, not elevated by passions or high concernments as in serious plays. Here every one is a proper judge of all he sees; nothing is represented but that with which he daily converses: so that by consequence all faults lie open to discovery, and few are pardonable. 'Tis this which Horace has judiciously observed:

creditur, ex medio quia res arcessit, habere sudoris minimum; sed habet Comedia tanto plus oneris, quanta veniæ minus.

But our poet, who was not ignorant of these difficulties, had prevailed himself of all advantages; as he who designs a large leap takes his rise from the highest ground. One of these advantages is that which Corneille has laid down as the greatest which can arrive to any poem, and which he himself could never compass above thrice in all his plays; viz. the making choice of some signal and long-expected day, whereon the action of the play is to depend. This day was that designed by Dauphine for the settling of his uncle's estate upon him; which to compass, he contrives to marry him. That the marriage had been plotted by him long beforehand is made evident by what he tells True-Wit in the second act, that in one moment he had destroyed what he had been raising many months.

'There is another artifice of the poet which I cannot here omit, because by the frequent practice of it in his comedies he has left it to us almost as a rule: that is, when he has any character or humour wherein he would show a coup de maistre, or his highest skill, he recommends it to your observation by a pleasant description of it before the person first appears. Thus, in Bartholomew Fair he gives you the pictures of Numps and Cokes, and in this those of Daw, Lafoole, Morose, and the Collegiate Ladies; all which you hear described before you see them. So that before they come upon the stage you have a longing expectation of them, which prepares you to receive them favourably; and when they are there, even from their first appearance you are so far acquainted with them that nothing of their humour is lost to you.

'I will observe yet one thing further of this admirable plot: the business of it rises in every act. The second is greater than the first, the third than the second, and so forward to the fifth. There too you see, till the very last scene, new difficulties arising to obstruct the action of the play; and when the audience is brought into despair that the business can naturally be effected, then, and not before, the discovery is made. But that the poet might entertain you with more variety all this while, he reserves some new characters to show you, which he opens not till the second and third act. In the second, Morose, Daw, the Barber, and Otter; in the third, the Collegiate Ladies: all which he moves afterwards in by-walks, or under-plots, as diversions to the main design, lest it should grow tedious, though they are still naturally joined with it, and somewhere or other subservient to it. Thus, like a skilful chess-player, by little and little he draws out his men, and makes his pawns of use to his greater persons.

'If this comedy, and some others, of his were translated into French prose (which would now be no wonder to them, since Molière has lately given them plays out of verse which have not displeased them); I believe the controversy would soon be decided betwixt the two nations, even making them the judges. But we need not call our heroes to our aid; be it spoken to the honour of the English, our nation can never want in any age such who are able to dispute the empire of wit with any people in the universe. And though the fury of a civil war, and power for twenty years together abandoned to a barbarous race of men, enemies of all good learning, had buried the Muses under the ruins of monarchy; yet, with the restoration of our happiness, we see revived poesy lifting up its head, and already shaking off the rubbish which lay so heavy on it. We have seen since his Majesty's return many dramatic poems which yield not to those of any foreign nation, and which deserve all laurels but the English. I will set aside flattery and envy: it cannot be denied but we have had some little blemish either in the plot or writing of all those plays which have been made within these seven years (and perhaps there is no nation in the world so quick to discern them, or so difficult to pardon them, as ours): yet if we can persuade ourselves to use the candour of that poet who (though the most severe of critics) has left us this caution by which to moderate our censures:

ubi plura nitent in cannine, non ego paucis offendar maculis

If, in consideration of their many and great beauties, we can wink at some slight and little imperfections; if we, I say, can be thus equal to ourselves, I ask no favour from the French. And if I do not venture upon any particular judgment of our late plays, 'tis out of the consideration which an ancient writer gives me: vivorum, ut magna admiratio, ita censura difficilis: betwixt the extremes of admiration and malice, 'tis hard to judge uprightly of the living. Only I think it may be permitted me to say that as it is no lessening to us to yield to some plays, and those not many of our own nation in the last age, so can it be no addition to pronounce of our present poets that they have far surpassed all the Ancients, and the modem writers of other countries.'


Act [of a play]

The sections into which a play or other theatrical work have been divided, either by the playwright or by a later editor. Dividing plays into five acts became popular during the Renaissance, in imitation of Roman tragedy; modern works are sometimes divided into three acts.

Alexandrine Couplets

A rhymed verse form based on six-beat measures, in which every second line rhymes with the one before. Alexandrines were used in French tragedy and comedy throughout the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century. They require highly skilled actors for their proper delivery.

Breeches Roles

Roles written or adapted for female actors in which they portray men or dress in male attire; especially popular during the English Restoration and throughout the eighteenth century, when men's trousers, or breeches, were form-fitting and reached only to the knee.


The infamously obscure medical term used by Aristotle in his Poetics to describe the purpose of tragedy: to stimulate pity and fear in the audience, and then to bring about the purgation or purification (catharsis) of these and similar emotions. Since Aristotle, the term has been widely adopted to refer to the healthy and pleasurable effects of releasing strong emotions, not only by watching a play, but in life generally.

Choral Lyric

A poem performed by a singing, dancing chorus; one of the early genres of Greek poetry out of which drama developed. See also dithyramb.


Originally, the choir of singing, dancing, masked young men who performed in ancient Greek tragedy and comedy. Treated in tragedy as a "character" within the story, the chorus often represents aggrieved groups (old men, foreign slaves, victims of the plague). The chorus berates, implores, advises, harasses, pursues, and sometimes even helps and commiserates with the main characters, but mostly bears witness to their doings and sayings. In Old Comedy, the chorus serves at times as the mouthpiece for the poet. It gradually disappeared from tragedy and comedy, but many attempts have been made to revive some version of it, notably during the Italian and English Renaissance, under Weimar Classicism, and by such twentieth-century playwrights as Jean Anouilh, T.S. Eliot, and Michel Tremblay. The singing and dancing chorus appears today most commonly in musical theatre, opera, and operetta.


A play written to induce joy or laughter in the audience. Unlike tragedy, which generally takes characters from a condition of prosperity to a state of destruction or loss, comedy usually begins with a problem, and ends with its happy resolution. Comedy ranges from laughing genres such as satire and comedy of manners, parody, farce and burlesque, to such weepy genres as sentimental and romantic comedy.

Comedy of Manners

A type of comic play that flourished in the late seventeenth century in London, and elsewhere since, which bases its humour on the sexual and marital intrigues of "high society." It is sometimes contrasted with "comedy of character," as its satire is directed at the social habits and conventional hypocrisy of the whole leisured class. Also called Restoration Comedy; exemplified by the plays of Behn, Wycherley, and Congreve.


The wearing of the clothing of the opposite sex, either on stage or in life, is typical of many single-gender theatrical traditions, such as those of ancient Greece and Shakespearean England, in which only men performed. See also breeches roles.


The art or principles of playwriting.

Epic Drama

A term popularized by Bertolt Brecht (though invented by Erwin Piscator) to describe a style of theatrical storytelling that, for political reasons, pits itself against the conventional rules of dramaturgy as outlined by Aristotle, who distinguished "epic" from "dramatic" writing. Whereas traditional drama is supposed to make audiences empathize with the struggle of a single, psychologically self-contained protagonist, epic drama places characters against the backdrop of the largest possible historical and political context in order that their actions do not seem inevitable or determined by private "human nature," but instead are revealed as part of a public, man-made, and therefore alterable set of historical facts. To prevent spectators from lapsing into an unthinking emotional stupor, epic theatre uses short, episodic, self-­contained scenes, multi-media projections, written text, and music to interrupt and "alienate" the action rather than to emphasize its emotions.

Epic Poetry

A form of oral verse, originally sung from memory to musical accompaniment by specialist bards, containing a vast panorama of human life in war and peace. The epics of ancient Greece, each tens of thousands of lines long, are known to us mainly through the works of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The stories of humans and gods contained in such poems provided most of the narrative material of Athenian tragedy and the satyr play.

Episodic Plot

A play or literary work composed of a series of separate and to some degree inter­changeable incidents (rather than of a single, unified, and continuously unfolding narrative) is said to have an episodic plot.


Sometimes classed as the "lowest" form of comedy. Its humour depends not on verbal wit, but on physicality and sight gags: pratfalls, beatings, peltings with pies, malfunctioning equipment, unpleasant surprises, and sudden necessities to hide in boxes and closets. However, most comedy contains some elements of farce, which requires highly skilled actors for its effects. Also called "slapstick" in honour of the double-shafted baton carried by Arlecchino in commedia dell'arte, which, when struck against another actor in a simulated beating, made a loud slap.

History Play

A dramatic re-imagining of real people and events drawn from the annals of the past. Shakespeare and Schiller are considered among the greatest writers of history plays; Büchner and Strindberg are also noted for them. From time to time, such works have played important roles in the establishment of a nation's self-image and founding myths. Some degree of anachronism tends to be considered acceptable in historical dramas.

Iambic Dialogue

Speech in a poetic drama that, with its unstressed/stressed rhythm (or short/long accent), most closely approximates the rhythm of everyday speech. Iambics were first used in Greek poetry in abusive poems that attacked particular individuals.


A contrast between what is said and what is known. Some speakers use it intentionally, as when Socrates feigned ignorance of things he knew quite well, to draw out other "philosophers." By contrast, dramatic irony occurs when characters utter statements whose full meaning is not understood by them (although it is clear to those who hear it, such as the audience or the other characters on stage). Many of Oedipus's remarks, which are true in ways he does not yet grasp, exemplify dramatic irony. Tragic irony, on the other hand, is said to occur when events turn out in an opposite way to what was expected and desired, yet so strangely fittingly that, in retrospect, it seems as if this outcome should have been predicted or known all along (see tragedy, with its "reversal and recognition"). Some forms of satire may also rely on irony.


Any removable and reusable material used to disguise, transform, obscure, or decorate all or part of an actor's face. Many Western theatre traditions use masks as a convention. Greek and Roman actors always wore full masks with large, gaping mouth-holes (except in mimes); Italian actors of the commedia dell'arte wore coloured leather half-masks that covered their eyes, nose and upper cheeks. With the return of non-realistic performance styles in the twentieth century, the use of masks has become widespread again.


Spectacular entertainments performed at royal courts as part of special celebrations such as weddings and feast-days, chiefly during the Renaissance. Consisting of music, dance, technical wizardry, and extravagantly opulent costumes, masques celebrated the virtues of the reigning monarch in terms, images, and allegories drawn from Classical mythology. Members of the royal family and their entourage took part by joining in the dancing or allowing themselves to be carried aloft on "clouds" animated by hidden machines. In England, Ben Jonson provided the poetry for famous masques created in collaboration with architect and scenographer Inigo Jones.


A type of storytelling that emerged in France and Germany in the wake of the French Revolution, and that is marked by many features of that event: a clear division of characters into the poor, weak, and good hero on one hand, often a child, woman, mute or slave; and a rich, powerful, and evil villain on the other, who schemes to exploit or harm the victim, but who is triumphantly overthrown at the last possible minute, usually in a sensational fire, fight, avalanche, or other violent cataclysm. Literally "music-drama," melodrama originally used background music throughout the action, much like film soundtracks do, to emphasize the characters' emotions, warn of approaching danger, and shape the spectator's emotional response (especially at the ends of acts and scenes, when actors assumed particularly pathetic or frightening postures and held them, frozen, in tableaux). Melodrama was the most popular narrative genre in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century. It still retains its popularity today, but it has long since left the theatre, taking up residence in the Hollywood film.

Neoclassical Dramaturgy

The principles, rules, and conventions of writing plays according to the precepts and ideals of neoclassicism. Often based on the so-called unities of time, place, and action.


Literally the "new classicism," the aesthetic style in drama and other art forms that dominated high culture in Europe through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in some places into the nineteenth century, or until it was swept away by Romanticism. Its subject matter was often taken from Greek and Roman myth and history; but more important than its subject matter was its style , which was based on a selective and often downright false image of the ancient world. It valued order, reason, clarity, and moderation; it rejected strong contrasts in tone, as well as, usually, the supernatural and anything that cannot be rationally motivated within the plot of a play (such as the appearance of gods, witches, or a dancing chorus). Racine's Phèdre is considered one of the most perfectly realized neoclassical dramas. See also unities.

New Comedy

A type of comic play that flourished in ancient Greece from the fourth century b.c.e., particularly under such playwrights as Menander. It was later imported into Rome, where its plots and characters were reworked in Latin. Replacing Old Comedy after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War, it focused on private, everyday domestic situations involving parent-child disharmony, money, neighbours, and parental obstacles to love and marriage. Its young lovers, bad-tempered parents, scheming slaves, and golden-hearted prostitutes quickly achieved the status of stock characters. Also known as situation comedy.

Old Comedy

The type of dramatic satire practiced in fifth-century Athens and equated today with the works of Aristophanes (see Frogs in this volume). The genre is known for its fantastical and unrealistic episodic plots, its frequent use of animal choruses (frogs, birds, wasps, horse-mounted knights), and particularly for its brilliant verbal wit, free obscenity, and fearless attacks on living Athenian politicians and other public figures (e.g., Euripides and Socrates). See also chorus.


Originally a genre of virtuoso solo performance invented by the ancient Romans. It is usually used today to refer to a type of spectacular entertainment that emerged in London at the beginning of the eighteenth century, featuring commedia dell'arte characters, magical special-effects wizardry, music, dance, and fantastical episodic plots. It remained very popular into the nineteenth century, when it picked up certain features of melodrama and developed into the form it usually takes today, the "Christmas Panto," which involves some audience participation, often of children. Also used in the sense of "to enact silently," or mime.

Pastoral Drama

A type of play invented during the Renaissance by members of Italian scholarly academies in an attempt to revive the satyr play of ancient Greece. Filtering the lusty, drunken goat-men, ecstatic maenads, and rustic settings of the satyr play though their Christian worldview, such writers created a new theatrical genre in which innocent shepherds, nymphs, and shepherdesses gambol in an idealized natural landscape free from the pressures of city life and the corruptions of civilization.


Not to be confused with the "story," the plot of a play or other literary work is the precise arrangement of incidents used to tell the story. The same story can give rise to countless plots, depending on the point at which the writer chooses to begin (at Oedipus's birth? or on the last day of his reign?), what he or she chooses to dramatize (the wedding night of Oedipus and Jocasta? the murder of Hamlet's father?), and how he chooses to bring the events about (a messenger? a lost letter? an epiphany? a gun-battle?).


The central character in a drama or other literary work; see ag¯on.

Restoration Comedy

A genre of witty and sexually uninhibited drama associated with the London theatres in the decades after 1660, when King Charles II was "restored" to the English throne. It was known for its pungent satire, obsession with the habits of the upper classes, and cynical depiction of human customs, particularly the institution of marriage. Also see comedy of manners.


The pretended adoption of the identity or function of another person. All acting, of course, is a type of role-playing. The impersonation of others is a common theme in drama and appears within the plots of countless plays.


A dreamlike genre of fiction or storytelling in which the ordinary laws of nature are suspended, in which statues come to life, shipwrecked men emerge from the sea unharmed, and troubled or broken worlds are magically healed at the end, often by daughters, and often in pastoral settings.


A humorous play or other work in which people, attitudes, or types of behaviour are ridiculed for the purpose of correcting their blameworthy qualities. Satirists differ from other types of comic writers in that they are often morally outraged by the follies and vices they depict. Of all types of comedy, satire is the most critical. It can also, paradoxically, be the most subtle, for satirists may mask their fury with humour so effectively that they can seem to be condoning the faults they abhor. Satire often makes use of irony and frequently targets politicians and other public figures. For this reason, satire tends to flourish in liberal societies where free speech is prized. See also Old Comedy and comedy of manners.

Satyr Play

Ancient Athenian genre of comical drama, usually a mythological burlesque, which was performed by a singing and dancing chorus dressed in satyr costume (a furry loincloth to which a goat's tail and artificial penis were attached, plus a mask depicting an ugly snubbed nose, high forehead, and goat's ears). In Greek myth, satyrs were the drunken, randy, rabble­rousing attendants of Dionysus, in whose honour all theatre was performed in ancient Greece. Satyr plays were staged as part of the Greek tragic tetralogy, either as the first or the last play of the four. See also pastoral drama.


A Greek word believed to mean "song of the goat-singers" (see satyr play and dithyramb). Originating in the sixth century b.c.e., tragedy is the oldest dramatic genre and remains for many the "highest" form of poetry. Our knowledge of it derives mainly from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, as well as from the little we know about the manner of its performance (see ag¯on, chorus, mask, orchestra, sk¯en¯e, and tragic tetralogy). Our understanding of it has also been shaped by Aristotle, whose description of Athenian tragedy in his Poetics remains a touchstone for tragic theory and practice to this day. According to Aristotle, tragedy is the imitation of an organically unified, serious action in which the plot, or arrangement of incidents, elicits the audience's pity and fear and then effects a catharsis, or purgation, of these and similar emotions. Tragic plots generally take the protagonist from a condition of good fortune to bad, often to his or her destruction, involve mental and/or physical suffering, and ideally take place within families, usually of a socially elevated or prominent type (royal families, for example). In Aristotle's view the most effective tragic plots also involve a simultaneous "reversal and recognition," a moment when the character's fortune turns for the worse, and when he or she is suddenly able to grasp a truth that was unavailable before. Tragedy has been reconceived by every subsequent age that has practiced it, beginning in the Renaissance. In the seventeenth century, it was reinvented according to the principles of neoclassicism; in the eighteenth according to those of the Enlightenment ("middle-class" or "bourgeois tragedy"). Romanticism in turn created its own tragic forms, often inspired by Shakespeare. Notable re-thinkings of tragedy in the modern age include Arthur Miller's essay "Tragedy and the Common Man." See also working-class tragedy.

Tragic Tetralogy

A four-part tragedy. Mostly associated with the (non-comic) plays of Athens in the fifth-century b.c.e., it consisted of one satyr play and three tragedies written on related themes. Another famous tragic tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung, was written in the nineteenth century by composer Richard Wagner. This four-part "music drama," created in imitation of Greek tragedy, is based on the heroes and gods of Germanic myth.


A genre of drama in which many elements of tragedy are present, but which generally has a happy end. Corneille's The Cid is an excellent example of this genre, which was sometimes preferred to straight tragedy under neoclassicism. See Fuenteovejuna.

Unities [of action, time and place]

A doctrine invented by the theorists of neoclassicism, who considered "the three unities" an essential rule of proper tragedy. It stipulates that the plot, the span of time it represents, and the amount of physical terrain it covers must together approximate the true unity of real space/time conditions (i.e., the single location and continuous two-hour time-period that prevails on stage during performance, during which one can realistically represent only so much action and no more). The concept was based on a misreading of Aristotle and was soon ridiculed almost out of existence by writers such as G.E. Lessing and Samuel Johnson. But it did succeed in determining the form taken by tragedy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It also ensured that the un-unified plays of Shakespeare would remain beneath the contempt of many for over a hundred years. Despite the unities' poor grounding in ancient theatre practice and the rigidity with which their (mostly French) advocates enforced them, the unities remain a useful concept in drama. Works of theatrical realism and Naturalism, for example, tend to observe them instinctively.