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182. NON TAMEN INTUS DIGNA GERI PROMES IN SCENAM :] I know not a more striking example of the transgression of this rule, than in Seneca's Hippolytus; where Theseus is made to weep over the mangled members of his son, which he attempts to put together on the stage. This, which has so horrid an appearance in the action, might have been so contrived, as to have an infinite beauty in the narration; as may be seen from a similar instance in Xenophon's Cyropædia, where Panthea is represented putting together the torn limbs of Abradates.
185. NE PUEROS CORAM POPULO, &c.] Seneca, whom we before [v. 123] saw so sollicitous to keep up to one rule of Horace, here makes no scruple to transgress another. For, in violation of the very letter of this precept, and of all the laws of decency and common sense, he represents Medea butchering her children in the face of the people; and, as if this too faintly painted the fury of her character, he further aggravates the cruelty of the execution, with all the horrors of a lingering act. This, seemingly inconsistent, conduct of the poet was, in truth, owing to one and the same cause, namely, "The endeavour "to sustain Medea's character." For, wanting true taste to discern the exact boundaries, which nature had prescribed to the human character, or true genius to support him in a due preservation of it, he, as all bad writers use, for fear of doing too little,
unfortunately does too much; and so, as Shakespear well expresses it, o'ersteps the modesty of nature, inflating her sentiments with extravagant passion, and blackening her acts with circumstances of unnatural horror. Though some of these faults I suspect he only copied. For, to say nothing of that of Ennius, Ovid's Medea was, at this time, very famous, and as, I think, may be collected from the judgment passed upon it by Quinctilian, had some of the vices, here charged upon Seneca. Ovidii Medea, says he, videtur mihi ostendere, quantum vir ille præstare potuerit, si ingenio suo temperare, quùm indulgere, maluisset. It is not possible indeed to say exactly, wherein this intemperance consisted; but it is not unlikely, that, amongst other things, it might shew itself in the sorceries and incantations; a subject, intirely suited to the wildness of Ovid's genius; and which, as appears from his relation of this story in the metamorphosis, he knew not how to treat without running into some excess and luxuriance in that part. But whether this were the cause, or no, the very treating a subject, which had gone through such hands, as Euripides, Ennius, and Ovid, was enough to expose a writer of better judgment, than Seneca, to some hazard. For, in attempting to outdo originals, founded on the plan of simple nature, a writer is in the utmost danger of running into affectation and bombast. And indeed, without this temptation, our writers have generally found means to incur these excesses; the very best of them being too apt to fill
their plots with unnatural incidents, and to heighten their characters into caracatures. Though it may be doubted, whether this hath been owing so much to their own ill taste, as to a vicious compliance with that of the public; for, as one says, who well knew the expediency of this craft, and practised accordingly, to write unnatural things is the most probable way of pleasing them who understand not nature. [Dryd. Pref, to Mock Astrol.]
193. ACTORIS PARTES CHORUS, &c.] See also Aristotle [weg. wont. x. in.] The judgment of two [περ. ποιητ. κ. such critics, and the practice of wise antiquity concurring to establish this precept concerning the Chorus, it should thenceforth, one would think, have become a fundamental rule and maxim of the stage. And so indeed it appeared to some few writers. The most admired of the French tragic poets ventured to introduce it into two of his latter plays, and with such success, that, as one observes, It should, in all reason, have disabused his countrymen on this head: l'essai heureux de M, Racine, qui les [chœurs] a fait revivre dans ATHALIE et dans ESTHER, devroit, ce semble, nous avoir detrompez sur cet article. [P. Brumoi, vol. i. p. 105.] And, before him, our Milton, who, with his other great talents, possessed a supreme knowledge of antiquity, was so struck with its use and beauty, as to attempt to bring it into our language. His Sampson Agonistes was, as might be expected, a master-piece. But even his credit hath not been sufficient to restore
the Chorus. Hear a late Professor of the art déclaring, De choro nihil disserui, quia non est essentialis dramati, atque à neotericis penitus, ET, ME JUDICE, MERITO, REPUDIATUR. [Præl. Poet. vol. ii. p. 188.] Whence it hath come to pass, that the chorus hath been thus neglected, is not now the inquiry. But that this critic, and all such are greatly out in their judgments when they presume to censure it in the ancients, must appear (if we look no further) from the double use, insisted on by the poet. For, 1. A chorus interposing, and bearing a part in the progress of the action, gives the representation that probability, and striking resemblance of real life, which every man of sense perceives and feels the want of upon our stage; a want, which nothing but such an expedient as the chorus can possibly relieve. And, 2, The importance of its other office [v. 196] to the utility of the representation, is so great, that, in a moral view, nothing can compensate for this deficiency. For it is necessary to the truth and decorum of characters, that the manners, bad as well as good, be drawn in strong, vivid colours, and to that end that immoral sentiments, forcibly expressed and speciously maintained, be sometimes imputed to the speakers.
d Quel avantage ne peut il [le poëte] pas tirer d'une troupe d'acteurs, qui remplissent sa scene, qui rendent plus sensible la continuité de l'action, et qui la font paroitre VRAISEMBLABLE, puisqu'il n'est
pas naturel qu'elle se passe sans temoins. On ne sent que trop le
vuide de notre Théatre sans cheurs, &c. [Le Théatre des Grecs, vol. i. p. 105.]
Hence the sound philosophy of the chorus will be constantly wanting to rectify the wrong conclusions of the audience, and prevent the ill impressions that might otherwise be made upon it. Nor let Nor let any one say, that the audience is well able to do this for itself: Euripides did not find even an Athenian theatre so quick-sighted. The story is well known [Sen. Ep. 115.] that when this painter of the manners was obliged, by the rules of his art, and the character to be sustained, to put a run of bold sentiments in the mouth of one of his persons, the people instantly took fire, charging the poet with the imputed villany, as though it had been his own. Now if such an audience could so easily misinterpret an attention to the truth of character into the real doctrine of the poet, and this too, when a chorus was at hand to correct and disabuse their judgments, what must be the case, when the whole is left to the sagacity and penetration of the people? The wiser sort, 'tis true, have little need of this information. Yet the reflexions of sober. sense on the course and occurrences of the representation, clothed in the noblest dress of poetry, and inforced by the joint powers of harmony and action (which is the true character of the chorus) might make it, even to such, a no unpleasant or unprofitable entertainment. But these two are a small part of the uses of the chorus: which in every light is seen so important to the truth, decorum, and dignity of the tragic scene, that the modern stage, which hath not thought proper to adopt it, is even, with the advan