Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Prospects of the Drama,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 124-129


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[page 124:]

PROSPECTS OF THE DRAMA. — MRS. MOWATTS COMEDY.

[Text: Broadway Journal, April 5, 1845.]

SO deeply have we felt interested in the question of Fashion’s success or failure, that we have been to see it every night since its first production; making careful note of its merits and defects as they were more and more distinctly developed in the gradually perfected representation of the play.

We are enabled, however, to say but little either in contradiction or in amplification of our last week’s remarkswhich were based it will be remembered, upon the original MS. of the fair authoress, and upon the slightly modified performance of the first night. In what we then said we made all reasonable allowatuces for inadvertences at the outset — lapses of memory in the actors — embarrassments in scene-shifting — in a word for general hesitation, and want of finish. The comedy now, however, must be understood as having all its capabilities fairly brought out, and the result of the perfect work is before us.

In one respect, perhaps, we have done Mrs. Mowatt unintentional injustice. We are not quite sure, upon reflection, that her entire thesis is not an original one. We can call to mind no drama, just now, in which the design can be properly stated as the satirizing of fashion as fashion. Fashionable follies, indeed, as a class of folly in general, have been frequently made the subject of dramatic ridicule — but the distinction is obvious — although certainly too nice a one to be of any practical avail to the authoress of the new [page 125:] comedy. Abstractly we may admit some pretension to originality of plan — but, in the representation, this shadow of originality vanishes.

We cannot, if we would, separate the dramatis personæ from the moral they illustrate; and the characters overpower the moral. We see before us only personages with whom we have been familiar time out of mind: — when we look at Mrs. Tiffany, for example, and hear her speak, we think of Mrs. Malaprop in spite of ourselves, and in vain endeavour to think of anything else. The whole conduct and language of the comedy, too, have about them the unmistakeable flavor of the green-room. We doubt if a single point either in the one or the other, is not a household thing with every play-goer. Not a joke is any less old than the hills — but this conventionality is more markedly noticeable in the sentiments, so called. When, for instance, Gertrude in quitting the stage, is made to say, “if she fail in a certain scheme she will be the first woman who was ever at a loss for a stratagem,” we are affected with a really painful sense of the antique. Such things are only to be ranked with the stage “properties,” and are inexpressibly wearisome and distasteful to every one who hears them. And that they are sure to elicit what appears to be applause, demonstrates exactly nothing at all. People at these points put their hands together, and strike their canes against the floor for the reason that they feel these actions to be required of them as a matter of course, and that it would be ill-breeding not to comply with the requisition. All the talk put into the mouth of Mr. Trueman, too, about “when honesty shall be found among lawyers, patriotism among statesmen,” etc. etc. must be included in the same category. [page 126:] The error of the dramatist lies in not estimating at its true value the absolutely certain “approbation” of the audience in such cases — an approbation which is as pure a conventionality as are the “sentiments” themselves. In general it may be boldly asserted that the clapping of hands and the rattling of canes are no tokens of the success of any play — such success as the dramatist should desire: — let him watch the countenances of his audience, and remodel his points by these. Better still let him “look into his own heart and write” — again better still (if he have the capacity) let him work out his purposes à priori from the infallible principles of a Natural Art.

We are delighted to find, in the reception of Mrs. Mowatt’s comedy, the clearest indications of a revival of the American drama — that is to say of an earnest disposition to see it revived. That the drama, in general, can go down, is the most untenable cf all untenable ideas. Dramatic art is, or should be, a concentralization of all that which is entitled to the appellation of Art. When sculpture shall fail, and painting shall fail, and poetry, and music; — when men shall no longer take pleasure in eloquence, and in grace of motion, and in the beauty of woman, and in truthful representations of character, and in the consciousness of sympathy in their enjoyment of each and all, then and not till then, may we look for that to sink into insignificance, which, and which alone, affords opportunity for the conglomeration of these infinite and imperishable sources of delight.

There is not the least danger, then, that the drama shall fail. By the spirit of imitation evolved from its own nature and to a certain extent an inevitable consequence of it, it has been kept absolutely stationary [page 127:] for a hundred years, while its sister arts have rapidly flitted by and left it out of sight. Each progressive step of every other art seems to drive back the drama to the exact extent of that step — just as, physically, the objects by the way-side seem to be receding from the traveller in a coach. And the practical effect, in both cases, is equivalent: — but yet, in fact, the drama has not receded: on the contrary it has very slightly advanced in one or two of the plays of Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer. The apparent recession or degradation, however, will, in the end, work out its own glorious recompense. The extent — the excess of the seeming declension will put the right intellects upon the serious analysis of its causes. The first noticeable result of this analysis will be a sudden indisposition on the part of all thinking men to commit themselves any farther in the attempt to keep up the present mad — mad because false — enthusiasm about “Shakspeare and the musical glasses.” Quite willing, of course, to give this indisputably great man the fullest credit for what he has done — we shall begin to ask our own understandings why it is that there is so very — very much which he has utterly failed to accomplish.

When we arrive at this epoch, we are safe. The next step may be the electrification of all mankind by the representation of a play that may be neither tragedy, comedy, farce, opera, pantomime, melodrama, or spectacle, as we now comprehend these terms, but which may retain some portion of the idiosyncratic excellences of each, while it introduces a new class of excellence as yet unnamed because as yet undreamed-of in the world. As an absolutely necessary condition of its existence this play may usher in a thorough remodification of the theatrical physique. [page 128:]

This step being fairly taken, the drama will be at once side by side with the more definitive and less comprehensive arts which have outstripped it by a century: — and now not merely will it outstrip them in turn, but devour them altogether. The drama will he all in all.

We cannot conclude these random observations without again recurring to the effective manner in which “Fashion” has been brought forward at the Park. Whatever the management and an excellent company could do for the comedy, has been done. Many obvious improvements have been adopted since the first representation, and a very becoming deference has been manifested, on the part of the fair authoress and of Mr. Simpson, to every thing wearing the aspect of public opinion — in especial to every reasonable hint from the press. We are proud, indeed, to find that many even of our own ill-considered suggestions, have received an attention which was scarcely their due.

In “Fashion” nearly all the Park company have won new laurels. Mr. Chippendale did wonders. Mr. Crisp was, perhaps, a little too gentlemanly in the Count — he has subdued the part, we think, a trifle too much: — there is a true grace of manner of which he finds it difficult to divest himself, and which occasionally interferes with his conceptions. Miss Ellis did for Gertrude all that any mortal had a right to expect. Millinette could scarcely have been better represented. Mrs. Knight as Prudence is exceedingly comic. Mr. and Mrs. Barry do invariably well — and of Mr. Fisher we forgot say in our last paper that he was one cf the strongest points of the play. As for Miss Horne — it is but rank heresy to imagine [page 129:] that there could be any difference of opinion respecting her. She sets at naught all criticism in winning all hearts. There is about her lovely countenance a radiant earnestness of expression which is sure to play a Circean trick with the judgment of every person who beholds it.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Prospects of the Drama)