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the lady, coming up just at the time, goes to playing her batteries on them both, until Patience arrives and restores harmony all round, charming the discontent out of Tiler, and the fury out of Strife.
Jack Juggler, “a new interlude for children to play,” is somewhat remarkable, not only in that it carries still higher the effort at individual character. but as being one of the oldest pieces founded on a classic original; the author claiming, in his prologue, to have taken “Plautus' first comedy" as his model. Master Bongrace sends his lacquey Jenkin to Dame Coy, his lady-love; but Jenkin loiters to play at dice and steal apples. Jack Juggler, who enacts the Vice, watches him, gets on some clothes just like his, and undertakes to persuade him that he is not himself, but another man.” The task proves too much, till he brings fist-arguments to bear; when Jenkin gives up the point, and makes a comical address to the audience, alleging certain reasons for believing that he is not himself. The humour of the piece turns mainly on this doubt of his identity.
We have many other specimens in the class of MoralPlays; but, as they are all cast in much the same mould, any further dwelling upon them would accomplish little towards illustrating the progress of the Drama.
COMEDY AND TRAGEDY.
We have seen how the old Miracle-Plays gradually gave way to Moral-Plays, first borrowing some of their materials, then thrown into the background, and finally quite displaced by them. Yet both these forms of the Drama were radically different from Comedy and Tragedy in the proper sense of these terms: there was very little of character or of human blood in them; and even that little was rather forced in by external causes than a free outgrowth from the genius of the thing. The first, in their proper idea and original plan, were but a mechanical collocation of the events of Scripture and old legend, carried on by a sort of personal representatives; the second, a mere procession of abstract ideas rudely and inartificially personified, with something of fantastical drapery thrown around them. So that both alike stood apart from the vitalities of nature and the abiding interests of thought, being indeed quite innocent of the knowledge of them.
Of course it was impossible that such things, themselves the offspring of darkness, should stand the light. None but children in mind could mistake them for truth, or keep up any real sympathy with such unvital motions. Precluded from the endless variety of individual nature and character, they could not but run into great monotony: in fact, the whole thing was at best little more than a repetition of one fundamental air under certain arbitrary variations. As the matter shown was always much the same, the interest had to depend chiefly on the manner of showing it; and this naturally generated a cumbrous and clumsy excess of manner; unless indeed the thing drew beyond itself; while in doing this it could scarce fail to create a taste that would sooner or later force it to withdraw from the scene.
Accordingly, Moral-Plays, as we have seen, began, early in their course, to deviate into veins foreign to their original design: points of native humour and wit, and lines of personal interest were taken in to diversify and relieve the allegorical sameness; and these grew more and more into the main texture of the workmanship. As the new elements gained strength, much of the old treasure proved to be mere refuse and dross; as such it was discarded; while so much of sterling wealth as had been accumulated was sucked in, retained, and carried up into the supervening growth.
The beginnings, then, of English Comedy and Tragedy were made long before these appeared in distinct formation. And the first known hand that drew off the elements of Comedy, and moulded them up by themselves, was John Heywood, who belonged to the theatrical and musical establishment of Henry the Eighth. His pieces, however, have not the form of regular comedies. He called them Interludes, a name in use many years before, and probably adopted by him as indicating the purpose to which he designed them, of filling the gaps or intervals of banquets and other entertainments. They are short, not taking much more time than a single act in an ordinary comedy. Yet they have the substance of comedy, in that they give pictures of real life and manners, containing much sprightliness of dialogue, and not a little of humour and character, and varied with amusing incident and allusion drawn fresh from the writer's observation, with the dews of nature upon them.
Heywood's earliest piece, printed in 1533, is entitled A merry Play between the Pardoner and the Friar, the Curate and Neighbour Pratt. A Pardoner and a Friar have each got leave of the Curate to use his church, the one to exhibit his relics, the other to preach a sermon.
The Friar comes first, and is about to begin his preachment, when the other enters and disturbs him: each wants to be heard first; and, after a long trial which has the stronger lungs, they fall into a regular performance of mutual kicking and cuffing. The Curate, aroused to the spot by the noise, endeavours to part them; failing of this, he calls in Neighbour Pratt, and then seizes the Friar, leaving Pratt to manage the other, the purpose being to put them both in the stocks. But they get the worst of it altogether; so that they gladly come to terms, allowing the Pardoner and Friar quietly to depart. As a sample of the incidents, I may add that the Friar, while his whole sermon is against covetousness, harps much on the voluntary poverty of his order, and then gives notice of his intention to take up a collection. In a like satirical humour, the Pardoner is made to exhibit some laughable relics, such as “the great toe of the Holy Trinity," and the “ blessed jaw-bone” of all the saints in the Calendar. Of course his purpose also is to bless money
into his purse.
Another of Heywood's pieces, also printed in 1533, is called A merry Play between John the Husband, Tib the Wife, and Sir John the Priest. Here the comic vein runs out even more freely than in the former piece, and has quite as much relish of home-made observation. Still another of Heywood's pieces, also full of broad fun, and equally smacking of real life, is called The Four Ps; while a fourth, called The Play of the Weather, has something the character of a Moral-Play, the Vice figuring in it under the name of Merry Report.- - Thus much must suffice for indicating the steps taken by Heywood in the direction of genuine Comedy.
An anonymous interlude called Thersites, and written in 1537, deserves mention as the oldest dramatic piece in English, with characters purporting to be borrowed from secular history. The piece, however, has nothing of historical matter but the names: it is merely a piece of broad comedy in the vein of English life and manners.
The oldest known specimen of a regular English comedy is Ralph Roister Doister, written as early as 1551. It was the work of Nicholas Udall, a name distinguished in the early literature of the Reformation; who, in 1534, was appointed Head-Master of Eton, then famous for teaching the classics, became Prebendary of Windsor in 1551, was afterwards made Head-Master of Westminster School, and died in 1556.
In his prologue the author refers to Plautus and Terence as his models. The play is in five Acts, which are subdivided into scenes; the scene is in London, the persons and manners all English. The hero and heroine are Ralph Roister Doister and Dame Custance, a widow; in the train of the former are Matthew Merrygreek and Harpax; of the latter, Truepenny her man, Madge Mumblecrust her nurse, Tibet Talkapace, and Annot Alyface. The play is opened by Matthew, who enters singing, and expounds his mind in a soliloquy, dilating on his patron's qualities and his own. Presently Ralph comes in talking to himself, and calls on Matthew for counsel and help, as he is dying for love of a
lady whose name he does not at first remember, and who, he hears, is engaged to a merchant named Goodluck. Matthew stuffs him with the assurance that his figure is such as no woman can resist, and that the people go into raptures over him as he passes in the streets; all which he greedily swallows. Next, we have a scene of Madge, Tibet, and Annot at their work, praising their good fare, rallying each other, and singing snatches of song: Ralph overhears them, and takes joy to think how happy he shall live with a wife who keeps such servants; strikes up an acquaintance with them, and, after divers comic passages, leaves with Madge a letter for her mistress. The next day Dobinet Doughty comes from Goodluck with a ring and token, which Madge refuses to deliver, she having been scolded for taking Ralph's letter. He tells the servants he is a messenger from their lady's intended husband, but does not mention his name: they are delighted at the prospect of such a change in the family, and almost fall at strife for the honour of carrying the presents to their mistress, who, however, sharply reproves them for taking such things without knowing whence they come.
In the third Act Matthew is sent to reconnoitre, when he learns that the lady's hand is already engaged, and that she has not even read Ralph's letter. Returning, he tells Ralph she will have nothing to do with him, and how she abuses him with opprobrious terms; which puts him to dying for love right on the spot; and Matthew, to help on the joke, calls in the parish clerk and others to sing a mock requiem. As Ralph does not succeed in dying, Matthew counsels him to put on a bold face, and claim the lady's hand in person, after treating her to a serenade. He agrees to this, and while the serenade is in progress the lady enters; he declares his passion; she rejects him with scorn, and returns his letter unread; whereupon Matthew reads it in her hearing, but so varies the pointing as to turn the sense all upside down; and Ralph denies it to be his. As soon as she has left them, Matthew goes to refreshing him