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of performance. Such inconveniences may, in some measure, be surmounted by the first masters; but, in other hands, must necessarily have the effect of rendering the piece barren of incident, languid, and uninteresting. It is then to the taste and genius of later times, that we are indebted for the more finished productions of the Tragic Muse. As the first grand and necessary step in improvement, the modern dramatist disbanded the chorus, and thus released himself from the shackles of ancient thraldom. He is no longer obliged to make a court-yard, or the street, or the sea-shore, serve for the same dull scene through the whole performance. He is no longer forced to measure his time by the hour-glass: for, as the falling curtain, at stated intervals, suspends the action, and clears the stage, the imagination of the audience is, as it were, in the hands of the poet, and the lapse of minutes can easily be fancied the flight of hours. Thus, then, the tragic writer of our days, though he still observe the unity of action, as necessary to just delineation of character, and progressive developement of plot, has seized on a greater latitude of time and place, by which he is enabled to throw more variety of scene, intrigue, incident, and action, into his piece. The examination of any modern tragedy will illustrate the truth of these assertions. In Gustavus Vasa, for instance, the action first lies in the copper-mines, then in the mountains of Dalecarlia; now in the camp, now in its precincts. And in Philaster, if we include the various apartments of the palace, the scene changes no less than twelve times. It is by this single power over place, that the modern dramatist is enabled so to involve his argument and aggregate events, as to arrest attention by multiplicity of incident, interest by perplexity of plot, and surprize by unexpected catastrophe. To employ such extensive materials, and include such variety of occurrence, in one scene, would be impossible and all the interest of an English tragedy, nay, the tragedy itself, would be annihilated in an attempt to adjust it to the ancient model.
Besides the advantages already enumerated, we possess, in the passion of love, a rich and invaluable mine of dramatic gold, so little explored by the ancients, that that tender sentiment does not form the foundation-plot of more than one of the Greek tragedies. And this will appear the less surprising, when we contemplate the amazing distance, at which women were kept in those primæval times; and recollect, that female performers were not allowed on the stage. Happily for us, juster notions of human nature, and purer feelings of generous attachment, have so interwoven and blended us in one com
mon interest with the fair sex, that their pleasures and pains are ours, nay, rise pre-eminent over those of man, and never fail to excite a more lively sympathy. Accordingly, though overlooked by the ancients, to what interesting scenes does the passion of love give birth in the hands of a Southern, a Congreve, and an Otway? Is it possible to view the romantic feelings of Isabella, without sentiments of admiration and sympathetic sorrow? Where shall we find, in tragedy, a scene more truly affecting, than the tenderness and distress of Castalio, in the fine interview with Monimia, in the fifth act of the Orphan? Can any thing be imagined so exquisite, as the picture of conjugal affection, and persisting fidelity, in the characters of Almeria and Belvidera?
Having thus vindicated the superior excellencies of the modern drama against the boasted claims of Greece, it would be agreeable to the tenor of the editor's plan, and the objects he has in view, to shew, that Britain possesses as decided a pre-eminence, in this branch of literature, over contemporary nations, as she does over remote antiquity. An examination into the state of the various theatres of Europe would incontestably prove the truth of this remark. But, as our right to the dramatic palm has never been disputed, such an inquiry seems unnecessary. It remains, therefore, to explain the motives, which led the editor to the present undertaking.
Impressed with the highest admiration of our Tragic Muse, the editor conceived, that a collection of her best works would be highly acceptable to the public, on account of the difficulty, that at present exists, of procuring the favourite productions of the stage in a convenient form. For many of our best tragedies are not to be obtained, except in a detached state, and others are only to be found in a complete edition of the works of the respective author. So that, a lover of the drama is reduced to the necessity, either of scattering his room with heaps of pamphlets, or loading his shelves with numerous volumes, of which the dramatic contents bear but a small proportion to the bulk of foreign matter. It is the purpose of publications like the present to obviate these inconveniences. But his predecessors, in this humble walk of literature, have given to the world miscellanies, rather than selections: they have frequently jumbled together, in the same volume, Tragedy, Comedy, and Farce, without attention either to choice or arrangement. They have preferred without taste, and distributed without judgment. So that, in such volumes, it is no uncommon thing to see the " Lying Valet" precede "Cato," and the "Roman Father" following" Miss in her Teens."
But, as Tragedy and Comedy possess entirely distinct characters, the former being intimately related to epic poetry, and rising above it in lofty style and sublime imagery, while the latter is the most perfect, as it more resembles common conversation, it has been thought more classical to publish performances, so essentially different from each other, in distinct volumes, rather than confound them in heterogeneous combination. The editor has therefore prepared one volume of Tragedies, another of Comedies, and a third of Farces and Operas, which, together, will, it is presumed, be found to constitute a commodious, cheap, and judicious theatrical library, while the public will find the advantage of arrangement, in being able to procure either volume separately, if there should be any persons, who exclusively prefer either species of composition. The man of sentiment and the humourist can now suit themselves according to their respective tastes. Nor is Heraclitus obliged to buy glees, nor Democritus ditties, bound up with the appropriate objects of their individual pursuit. Even those, who are equally admirers of the Comic and Tragic Muse, will find a convenience in this division, as they will hereby be better enabled to gratify the inclination of the moment, whether it tend to the grave or gay. And, as each play has been chronologically arranged, the reflecting mind will be able to see the progressive changes, that have taken place in dramatic composition, and mark the distinct æra of improvement.
Such, then, have been the motives of this publication, and the principles which have guided the editor in its arrangement. If the execution be answerable to his own wishes and intentions, this volume of Tragedies may serve as a register of national genius. For dramatic composition, of this kind, as it is the most valuable, so is it the most difficult of all the species of poetry it demands the most bold and vigorous conceptions, the most rich imagery, tender description, and impassioned language; it imposes a restraint on the inordinate flights of poetic enthusiasm, and forbids imagination to overstep the lines of character, or soar beyond the regions of probability. Yet this is not all, that is required of the Tragic writer. It is not sufficient, that he be poetical and chaste, unless his plot be so conducted as to excite a perpetual interest; the incidents must seem to retard, while they hurry on, the main object; and neither glowing thoughts, nor melodious numbers, will compensate for tediousness of dialogue. Criticism, in no instance, dispenses with the observance of these rules. And while Dryden and Lee are condemned for extravagant thoughts and glowing superfluities,
Thomson and Johnson have not escaped censure for nakedness of plot, and the want of a rapid succession of unexpected incidents. In a style of composition, therefore, which requires such concentrated talents to succeed, a bold imagination to conceive, and a correct taste to execute, it is thought that a selection of the best performances may be justly admitted as the testimony of national genius; and in the specimens which are now submitted to the public, the editor is confident, that the manifold beauties will not only gratify the taste, but flatter the patriot-pride of an English reader, when he contemplates, in their unrivalled excellencies, the literary superiority of Britain, not only over ancient Greece, but over all the kingdoms of modern Europe.
It was the editor's wish to insert a few of the best of Shakespeare's plays in these volumes, but several causes have prevented it: the difficulty of selection, the number that are truly excellent, and the universal practice of publishing his immortal works in a body by themselves. Besides, there is already an edition of his plays, in a form similar to the present, which, with these volumes, will form a complete BRITISH DRAMA.
LONDON, January, 1804.