Page images
PDF
EPUB

Such being the case, we think it far from unlikely that we may live to see the day when the acted drama shall be known only as a thing that was,-unless, indeed, some new Siddons or Kean should arise to stay its downfall. But we have no apprehension that the closet drama, if we may so speak, will ever experience a similar fate. As soon should we expect to see literature itself shuffled aside as an obsolete fashion, and the age relapse into barbarism; for the dramatic is the noblest, the most exciting, most triumphant, and attractive form which genius can assume. How much patient study,-how much practical acquaintance with the strength and weakness of humanity,-how much concentrated feeling and fervid power of imagination,-how much silent communing with his own heart,-above all, how entire a Catholicism of nature are necessary to constitute the sterling dramatist! To succeed in this difficult department of intellect implies the possession of abilities of the highest order; and we regard it as an omen of auspicious import, that some of the most admired poems of modern date are those which have been cast in a dramatic mould,—such as The Bride's Tragedy, Philip Van Arteveldte, Thomas à Becket, Gregory the Seventh, Nina Sforza, and Festus.

Foremost among those who have distinguished themselves in this important branch of literature is Mr. Sergeant Talfourd, whose tragedies, effective in representation, lose none of their interest when perused in the calm seclusion of one's study. Of but few contemporary dramatists can this be said; and we well recollect how surprised we were, after witnessing the success of the Provost,' 'Rizzio,' and some other plays on the boards, to find, on an attentive examination, how much more there was of show than substance in them. Amid the excitement of a crowded theatre, with the tones of some skilful tragedian ringing in our ears, and every picturesque resource that the stage can supply, brought to bear on our imagination, we are apt to overlook all but the most obvious and glaring defects; but in the still retirement of the closet, with no external influences at work to disturb our selfpossession, or throw our judgment off its balance, we come to the task of critical investigation in an unbiassed spirit; and he whose plays can stand this deliberate scrutiny may be pronounced a dramatist in the most legitimate sense of the term. To this praise Mr. Talfourd is fully entitled. The presence of a refined, matured, and elevated taste, directing the course of emotion so as not to overstep the modesty of nature,' is visible in all his tragedies; and accordingly, in calling them to mind, we remember, not so much the excellence of one particular scene, as the impression that each made on us as a whole. He seems ever to have kept in his eye those lofty models of antiquity who, after the lapse of three thousand years, still rule our spirits from their urns.' This is particularly remarkable in his earliest dramatic efforts, Ion,' and the Athenian Captive,' whose forcible but unexaggerated development of character, which has all the distinctness and dignity of sculpture artfully constructed fable, wherein the catastrophe is brought about by a succession of causes all dependent upon one another-and classic elegance and propriety of language-show with what zeal and care the Learned Serjeant has studied the master-pieces of Sophocles and Euripides. To this careful study must be attributed his innate distaste for anything like stage-trick or melo-dramatic effect. Indeed, in one or two instances he has, we think, shown himself unnecessarily fastidious, and rejected opportunities of eliciting impassioned effects, from an apprehension of violating what Philosopher Square would call the fitness of things.'

It was observed of Sir Walter Scott by one of his most discriminating critics, that in his historical tales he not only showed an extensive knowledge of the age whose manners he professed to portray, but so fully and closely identified himself with it, that he seemed to revive its characteristic peculiarities less by an effort of the imagination than of the memory, just as though he were delineating incidents, habits, and personages of which he had himself had personal cognizance. Much of this rare faculty may be traced in the classic dramas of Mr. Talfourd. He, too, exhibits not merely an extensive, but a familiar, heart-felt acquaintance with all that we have on record of the traditions, and religious and domestic usages of the heroic times of Greece. He brings before us the Corinthian augurs watching the flight of birds; makes us breathless spectators of the well-known chariot-race; introduces us to stern Minerva's inmost shrine, where stands the giant statue' of the goddess; gives us an insight into the solemn sacrificial rites of Argos; and spreads out beneath our gaze the olive-crowned hills and columned temples of Athens. Nor must we omit to notice the apt felicity of his passing allusions to the sad ghost' wandering to that thronged and silent shore,' of which we get such impressive glimpses in the Odyssey; to the great race of Theseus; to the haggard Fury' waiting to cut the knot of lustrous life;' to the couch thronged by the phantoms of revenge,' which was suggested, we suspect, by a thrilling scene in the

6

"

"

Orestes of Euripides;* and to the dusky wall of shields,' the exquisite propriety of which epithet no reader of Homer but must admire. These minute, characteristic touches which are all let drop accidentally, as it were-are such as could only have been supplied by one who combined a scholar's knowledge of the classic times, with a poet's imagination to colour, shape, and breathe the breath of life into that knowledge.

It is curious to note the contrast that exists between the genius of Mr. Talfourd and that of his distinguished contemporary, Mr. Sheridan Knowles. Successful as both dramatists are, the one possesses scarcely a single attribute in common with the other. The former represents the classic school of art, with all its serene, emphatic majesty, and fixed unity of purpose by which the same coherence and consistency are given to the different parts of a story, as to the different limbs of a statue. The latter is a revival of the Elizabethan dramatists, with all their fervid, irregular, tumultuous crowd of emotions, and all their wilful disregard of keeping, in point of details. In Mr. Talfourd's plays we see that everything has been studiously arranged beforehand; nothing is left to the caprice of the moment-to the chapter of accidents. The plot is uniformly simple and gradual in its development; and, once set fairly a-going, it never halts or retrogrades, but moves steadily on to the crowning catastrophe. Yet simple, even to severity, as it is, it is never too obvious, but keeps alive curiosity at every stage of its progress. Mr. Knowles, on the other hand, is faulty to a degree in the construction of his plots, and raises expectation in one act, only to disappoint it in the next. Like some generous, high-mettled racer, he sets out on his course with uncommon vigour; but, being unable to husband his energies, he runs himself out of breath before he has got half-way to the goal. Seldom, if ever, do his incidents follow in natural sequence; and in working them up, he is apt to adopt a principle of favouritism with them-that is to say, he lavishes all his great powers on one, to the manifest detriment of the rest. Hence, though he has many noble, impassioned scenes, full of life, and studded with poetic gems of the purest water, he has not yet produced one highly-finished drama. As regards diction, Mr. Talfourd is elegant, harmonious, and occasionally somewhat florid; Mr. Knowles, rough, epigrammatic, abrupt, and in his more familiar dialogues fond of affecting a republican homeliness of manner. To this we can have no objection; but we do most earnestly protest against his frequent adoption of the quaint, obsolete phraseology of the Elizabethan age, which is as great an error of taste as would be the revival of a ghost, or a fairy, or a hamadryad, in a modern poem or romance. The main object of a dramatist should be, to copy living nature to the satisfaction of living judges; but this he can only partially accomplish, if he is constantly having recourse to a colloquial style in which men have long since ceased to express themselves. We do not find that Shakspeare affects the dialect of Chaucer. In the conception of character Mr. Talfourd exhibits great loftiness of thought and sentiment; Mr. Knowles rarely soars above the ordinary level of humanity, but when he sets out with the heroic, as in the instance of John of Procida,' he seems to feel that he has essayed a flight above his capacity, and quickly subsides into the domestic, where he is at home, if ever dramatist was.

The truthful energy and impassioned character of Mr. Knowles's genius have been much-and deservedly so-commended, but we know not that even in his happiest moods he has shown more unaffected vigour than Serjeant Talfourd; who, when circumstances require it, can be concise and energetic enough, knowing well that it is not passion's wont to fritter itself away in prolix declamation. In justification of our assertion we shall take leave to quote one or two passages from the Athenian Captive.' Here is a startling delineation of a murderer's state of mind in solitude:

6

'Again I stand within this awful hall!

I found the entrance here, without the sense
Of vision; for a foul and clinging mist,
Like the damp vapour of a long-closed vault,
Is round me. Now, its objects start to sight

Orestes, while reclining on his couch, imagines himself haunted by the furies, and the phantom of his murdered mother, and gives vent to his mental agonies in the following terrible lines, which the Learned Serjeant no doubt had in his eye while portraying some of the horrors that beset the brain of the remorse-stricken Thoas:

ω μητερ, ικετεύω σε, μη
επισεις μοι
τας αιματώπους και δρακοντώδεις κόρας"
αυται, γαρ, αυται πλησιον θρωσκουσι μου.
ω Φοιβή, αποκτενοῦσι μ' αι κυνωπίδες,
γοργώτες, ενερων τέριαι, δειναι θεαι.

With terrible distinctness! Crimson stains
Break sudden on the walls! The fretted roof
Grows living!-Let me hear a human voice,
Or I shall play the madman !"

In the above passage the reader will not fail to admire the emphatic significance of the epithet sudden,' and the ghastly image of the hall swarming with strange, silent life! The same deep chord of emotion is struck in the following brief dialogue, which concludes with one of the most striking thoughts in the whole range of modern dramatic literature :—

[ocr errors]

THOAS.

I have drunk fiercely at a mountain spring,
And left the stain of blood in its pure waters;
It quenched my mortal thirst, and I rejoiced,
For I seemed grown to dæmon, till the stream
Cooled my hot throat, and then I laughed aloud
To find that I had something human still!

PENTHEUS.

Fret not thy noble heart with what is past.

THOAS.

No! 'tis not past!—The murderer has no Past;
But one eternal Present!'

How beautiful, in a gentler and healthier spirit, is Mr. Talfourd's description of Athens! The versification is as smooth and polished as Parian marble; and the closing sentiment, where the vision of the glorious city is represented as interesting the spectator, chiefly by reason of its reminding him of home, gives a touching and mellowing human interest to the passage:—

'Athens;

Her groves, her halls, her temples, nay, her streets,
Have been my teachers !-Fatherless, I made
The city and her skies my home; have watch'd
Her various aspects with a child's fond Love;
Hung in chill morning o'er the mountain's brow,
And, as the dawn broke slowly, seen her grow
Majestic from the darkness, 'till she fill'd
The sight and soul alike; enjoy'd the storm
Which wrapt her in the mantle of its cloud,
While every flash that shiver'd it reveal'd
Some exquisite proportion, pictured once
And ever to the gazer;-stood entranced
In rainy moonshine, as, one side, uprose
A column'd shadow, ponderous as the rock
Which held the Titan groaning with the sense
Of Jove's injustice; on the other, shapes
Of dreamlike softness drew the fancy far
Into the listening air-but most I felt
Her loveliness when summer evening tints
Gave to my lonely childhood sense of home.'

We might adduce many other passages of equal excellence with those which we have just quoted; but enough, we think, have been given to justify the terms in which we have spoken of Mr. Talfourd as a dramatist. Be it remembered, too, to his lasting credit, that in all his tragedies he has steadily kept one great object in view-namely, to raise our estimate of humanity by bringing into play all that is noble and redeeming in man's nature, and vindicating his high destiny as a thinking and responsible being.

2

[graphic][subsumed][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »