Page images
PDF
EPUB

the impartial spectators a sort of image and representative voice upon the stage. Music was then simple; the dramatic representation of character and action, though bold, was simple; and this simplicity left in the ancient stage a space for the chorus, which it could not obtain (permanently) on that of the moderns. Our music is so complicated, that when it is allied with words it overwhelms our attention to words. Again, the Greek drama gave strong and decisive outlines of character and passion, but not their minute shadings; our drama gives all the play of moral physiognomy. The great and awful characters of a Greek tragedy spoke in pithy texts, without commentaries of sentiment; while the flexible eloquence of the moderns supplies both text and commentary. Every moral feeling, calm or tumultuous, is expressed in our soliloquies or dialogues. The Greeks made up for the want of soliloquy, and for the short simplicity of their dialogue, which often consisted in interchanges of single lines, by choral speeches, which commented on the passing action, explained occurring motives, and soothed or deepened the moral impressions arising out of the piece. With us every thing is different. The dramatic character is brought, both physically and morally, so much nearer to our perception, with all its fluctuating motives and feelings, as to render it as unnecessary to have interpreters of sentiment or motives, such as the chorus, to magnify, or sooth, or prolong our moral impressions, as to have buskins to increase the size, or brazen vases to reverberate the voice of the speaker. Nor has the mind any preparation for such juries of reflectors, and processions of confidential advisers.

There is, however, no rule without a possible exception. To make the chorus an habitual part of the modern drama would be a chimerical attempt. There are few subjects in which every part of a plot may not be fulfilled by individuals. Yet it is easy to conceive a subject, in which it may be required, or at least desirable, to incorporate a group of individuals under one common part.

And where this grouping shall arise not capriciously, but necessarily out of the nature of the subject, our minds will not be offended by the circumstance, but will thank the dramatist for an agreeable novelty. In order to reconcile us, however, to this plural personage, or chorus, it is necessary that the individuals composing it should be knit not only by a natural, but dignified coalition. The group, in fact, will scarcely please or interest the imagination unless it has a solemn or interesting community of character. Such are the Druids in “ Caractacus;" and, perhaps, the chorus of Israelites in Racine's “ Esther.” In such a case, even a modern audience would be likely to suspend their love of artificial harmony, and to listen with delight to simple music and choral poetry, where the words were not drowned in the music.

At all events, there would exist a fair apology for introducing

a chorus, from the natural and imposing bond of unity belonging to the group. But this apology will by no means apply to the tragedy of Elfrida. The chorus is there composed of persons who have no other community of character, than their being the waiting women of a baroness. They are too unimportant personages to be a chorus. They have no right to form so important a ring around Elfrida, in the dramatic hemisphere; and the imagination is puzzled to discover any propriety in those young ladies, who, according to history, ought to have been good Christians, striking up a hymn, in Harewood Forest, to the rising sun.

“ Hail to the living light,” &c. In other respects the tragedy of Elfrida is objec tionable. It violates the traditional truth of history, without exhibiting a story sufficiently powerful to triumph over our historical belief. The whole concludes with Elfrida's self-devotion to widowhood; but no circumstance is contrived to assure us, that, like many other afflicted widows, she may not marry again. An irreverend and ludicrous, but involuntary, recollection is apt to cross the mind respecting the fragility of widows' vows

“ Vows made in pain, as violent and void.” Elfrida was acted at Covent Garden in 1772, under the direction of Colman, who got it up with splendid scenery, and characteristic music, composed by Dr. Arne; but he made some alterations in the text,

which violently offended its author. Mason threatened the manager with an appeal to the public; and the

manager, in turn, threatened the poet with introducing a chorus of Grecian washerwomen on the stage. At the distance of several years it was revived at the same theatre, with the author's own alterations, but with no better success.

The play, in spite of its theatrical failure, was still acknowledged to possess poetical beauties.

In 1754 Mason went into orders; and, through the patronage of Lord Holderness, was appointed one of the chaplains to the king. He was also domestic chaplain to the nobleman now mentioned, and accompanied him to Germany, where he speaks of having met with his friend Whitehead, the future laureate, at Hanover, in the year 1755. About the same time, he received the living of Aston. He again courted the attention of the public in 1756, with four Odes, the themes of which were Independence, Memory, Melancholy, and the Fall of Tyranny. Smollett and Shenstone, in their strains to Independence and Memory, have certainly outshone our poet, as well as anticipated him in those subjects. The glittering and alliterative style of those four odes of Mason was severely parodied by Lloyd and Colman; and the public, it is said, were more entertained with the parodies than with the originals. On the death of Cibber, he was proposed to succeed to the laurel; but he received an apology for its not being offered to him, because he was a clergyman.

[ocr errors]

The apology was certainly both an absurd and false one; for Warton, the succeeding laureate, was in orders. There seems, however, to be no room for doubting the sincerity of Mason's declaration, that he was indifferent about the office.

His reputation was considerably raised by the appearance of “ Caractacus," in 1759. Many years after its publication, it was performed at Covent Garden, with applause; though the impression it produced was not sufficient to make it permanent on the stage. This chef d'oeuvre of Mason may not exhibit strong or minute delineation of human character; but it has enough of dramatic interest to support our admiration of virtue, and our suspense and emotion in behalf of its cause : and it leads the imagination into scenes, delightfully cast amidst the awfulness of superstition, the venerable antiquity of history, and the untamed grandeur of external nature. In this last respect, it may be preferred to the tragedy of Beaumont and Fletcher on the same subject; that it brings forward the persons and abodes of the Druids with more magnificent effect, There is so much of the poet's eye displayed in the choice of his ground, and in the outline of his struc, ture, that Mason seems to challenge something like a generous prepossession of the mind in judging of his drama. It is the work of a man of genius, that calls for regret on its imperfections. Even in the lyrical passages, which are most of all loaded with superfluous ornament and alliteration, we meet with

« PreviousContinue »