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HE most prominent object in modern comedy isi
: Spain; the next in Italy, and the third in Africa.. His plays are chiefly historical; and are a mixture of heroic speeches, serious incidents, war and flaughter, ridicule and buffoonery. He jumbles together chrif cianity and paganism, virtues and vices, angels and gods. Notwithstanding his faults, he possessed genius, and great force of imagination. Many of his characters are well painted; many of his situations are happy; and from the source of his rich invention dramatic writers of other nations have frequently drawn their materials. He was conscious himself of his extreme irregularities, and apologized for them from the prevail. ing taste of his countrymen..
The comic theatre of France is allowed to be
correct, chaste, and decent.
The comic author,, in
whom the French glory most, is Moliere. In the judgment of French critics he has nearly reached the summit of perfection in his art, Nor is this the decision of mere partiality. Moliere is the satirist only of vice and folly. His characters were peculiar to his own times; and in general his ridicule was justly directed. His comic powers were great ; and his pleasantry is always innocent. His Misanthrope, and Tartuffe are in verse, and constitute a kind of dignified comedy, in which vice is exposed in the style of elegant and polite satire. In his prose comedies there is a profusion of ridicule ; but the poet never gives alarm to modesty, por cafts contempt on virtue. With these high quali. ries however considerable defects are mingled. In un-favelling his plots he is unhappy; as this is frequently brought on with too little preparation, and in an ima probable manner, In his verse comedies he is not al. ways fufficiently interesting ; and he is too full of long speeches. In his risible pieces in profe he is too farcia eal. But upon the whole it may be affirmed, that few writers ever attained so perfectly the true end of comedy. His Tartuffe and Avare are his two capital productions.
I ROM the English theatre is naturally expected a greater variety of original characters in comedy, and bolder strokes of wit and humor, than from any other
modern stage. Humor is in some degree peculiar to England. The freedom of the government and the unrestrained liberty of English manners are favorable, to humor and singularity of character. In France the influence of a despotic court spreads uniformity over the nation. Hence comedy has a more amplified and a freer vein in Britain, than in France. But it is to be regretted, that the comic fpirit of Britain is often difa graced by indecency and licentiousness.
The first age however of English comedy was not infected by this fpirit. The plays of Shakespeare and Ben Johnson have no immoral tendency. The comen, dies of the former display a strong, creative genius; but are irregular in conduct. They are. fingularly rich in characters and manners; but often descend to please the mob. Johnson is more regular, but stiff and per: dantic ;, though not void of dramatic genius. Much: fancy and invention, and many fine passages, are found in the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. But in general they abound in romantic incidents, unnatural charac-ters, and coarse allusions..
Change of manners has rendered the comedies of the last age obsolete. For it is the exhibition of prevailing, modes and characters, that gives a charm to comedy.. Thus Plautus was antiquated to the Romans in the. days of Augustus.. But to the honor of Shakespeare. his Falstaff is still admired, and his Merry Wives of Winfor read with pleasure.
After the restoration of Charles II. the licentioufnels, which polluted the court and nation, seized upon comedy. The rake became the predominant character. Ridicule was thrown upon chastity and fobriety. At the end of the play indeed the rake becomes a feber man ; but through the performance he is a fine gentleman, and exhibits a pi&ture of the pleasurable enjoyments of life. This spirit of comedy had the worst ef. fect on youth of both sexes, and continued to the days. of George II.
In the comedies of Dryden there are many strokes of genius; but he is hasty and careless. As his object was to please, he followed the current of the times, and gave way to indelicacy and licentiousness. His indecency was at times fo gross, as to occasion a prohibition of his plays on the stage.
After Dryden flourished Cibber, Vanburgh, Fare quhar, and Congreve. Cibber has sprightliness and a pert vivacity ; but his incidents are fo forced and un. natural, that his performances have all funk into obscu. rity, excepting The Careless. Husband and The Provok. ed Husband. Of these the first is remarkable for the casy politeness of the dialogue ; and it is tolerably moral in its conduct. The latter, in which Cibber was affift. ed by Vanburgh, is perhaps the best comedy in the English language ; and even to this it may be object. ed, that it has a double plot. Its characters however are natural, and it abounds with fine painting and happy strokes of humor.
Wit, spirit, and eafe characterize Sir John Vanburgh; But he is the most indelicate and immoral of all our comedians. Congreve undoubtedly possessed genius. He is witty and sparkling, and full of character and action. Indeed he overflows with wit ; for it is often introduced unseasonably ; and in general there is too much of it for well bred conversation. Farquhar is a light and gay writer ; less correct and less brilliant, than Congreve ; but lie has more ease, and much of the Vis Comica. Like Congreve he is licentious ; and modelty must turn from them both with abhorrence. The French boast with justice of the superior decency of their stage, and speak of the English theatre with astonishment. Their philofophical writers afcribe the profligate manners of London to the indelicacy and corruption of English comedy.
Of late years a sensible reformation has taken place in English comedy. Our writers of comedy now appear ashamed of the indecency of their predecessors. They may be inferior to Farquhar and Congreve in fpirit, ease, and wit ; but they have the merit of being far more innocent and moral.
To the French stage we are much indebted for this reformation. The introduction within a few years of a graver comedy in France, called the serious or tender comedy, has attracted the attention and approbation of our writers. Gaiety and ridicule are not excluded from this species of comedy; but it lays the chief stress on tender and interesting situations. It is sentimental,