Category Archives: Drama

Item of the Day: Pye’s Poetics of Aristotle (1792)

Full Title:

A Commentary Illustrating the Poetic of Aristotle, By Examples Taken Chiefly from the Modern Poets.  To Which is Prefixed, A new and corrected edition of the Translation of the Poetic.  By Henry James Pye, Esq.  London: Printed for John Stockdale, Piccadilly.  M.DCC.XCII.

COMMENTARY.  Chap. I. Note I.

The Epopee and Tragedy, as also comedy and dithyrambics, and the greater part of those compositions which are set to the flute and the lyre, all agree in the general character of being imitations. 

By imitation, Aristotle does not mean merely description, but a lively representation of human actions, passions, and manners.  It would be superfluous to say much on a subject which has been so amply and clearly treated by Mr. Twining, in his ‘Dissertation on Poetry considered as an imitative art,’ and to which I refer such of my readers as desire full and satisfactory information on this subject.  Aristotle, undoubtedly, places that species of imitation in the first class, which is performed by persons acting, as in the drama, and, for the most part, in the epopees of Homer.  This appears from what he says of the epopee, in the twenty-fourth chapter.  ‘The poet (he observes) should appear himself as little as possible, for whenever he speaks in his own person he ceases to be an imitator;’ seeming even to contradict what he had before allowed in the third chapter, ‘that the poet might imitate, either like Homer, sometimes by simple narration, and sometimes by assuming a different character; or entirely by narration, without assuming any character.’  It may perhaps be impossible strictly to reconcile this difference of opinion, but it obviously shews the great preference he gave personal imitation to any other, from which arose his strong predilection for tragedy; and I think we may fairly deduce from it, that even the poet whose imitation is solely narrative, must paint in strong colours the effects of action, passions and manners, and not merely relate a fable though fictitious, like an historian, for the purpose of drawing moral reflections from it.

Those passages, nevertheless, of an epic poem, where the poet speaks in his own person, have great beauty from their contrast with the impassioned parts, and the relief they give the mind, provided they are neither too frequent nor too long, and the rule laid down by Aristotle, in his twenty-fourth chapter, concerning the elegance of the versification be carefully observed.  Mr. Twining quotes a beautiful example from the first Aeneid.

‘Urbs antique fuit, (Tyrii tenuêre coloni,)

Carthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe


Innumerable instances may be produced from Milton; as the description of evening and of paradise, in the fourth book of Paradise Lost; in this he is superior to any poet ancient or modern, though there are many striking passages of the same kind in the Odyssey.

The modern invention of reciting a tale, by means of an epistolary correspondence between the persons concerned, is a very happy mode of imitation, uniting in some measure the different advantages of epopee and the drama.  Perhaps a work of this nature, where the character and style of all the persons corresponding, is nicely discriminated and rigidly observed, is yet a desideratum in imitative composition.    


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Filed under 1790's, Ancient Greece, Criticism, Drama, Eighteenth century, Greek/Roman Translations, Literature, Posted by Matthew Williams

Item of the Day: The Relapse: or, Virtue in Danger (1777)

Full Title: The Relapse: or, Virtue in Danger. A Comedy. As written by Sir John Vanbrugh. Distinguishing also the Variations of the Theatre, as performed at the Theatre-Royal in Covent-Garden. Regulated from the Prompt Book. By Permission of the Managers, by Mr. Wild, Prompter. London: Printed for John Bell, near Exeter-Exchange, in the Strand, MDCCLXXVII. [1777]*


TO go about to excuse half the defects this abortive brat is come into the world with, would be to provoke the town with a long useless preface, when it is, I doubt, sufficiently soured already by a tedious play.

I do therefore (with the humility of a repenting sinner) confess, it wants every thing — but length; and in that, I hope, the severest critic will be pleased to acknowledge I have not been wanting. But my modesty will sure atone for every thing, when the world shall know it is so great, I am even to this day insensible of those two shining  graces in the play, (which some part of the town is pleased to compliment me with) blasphemy and bawdy.

For my part, I cannot find them out: if there were any obscene expressions upon the stage, here they are in the print; for I have dealt fairly, I have not sunk a syllable, that could (though by racking of mysteries) be ranged under that head; and yet I believe with a steddy (sic) faith, there is not one woman of a real reputation in town, but when she has read it impartially over in her closet, will find it so innocent, she will think it no affront to her prayer-book, to lay it upon the same shelf. So to them (with all manner of deference) I entirely refer my cause; and I am confident they will justify me against those pretenders to good manners, who at the same time have so little respect for the ladies, they would extract a bawdy jest from an ejaculation, to put them out of countenance. But I expect to have these well-bred persons always my enemies, since I am sure I shall never write any thing lewd enough to make them my friends.

As for the saints (your thorough-paced ones, I mean, with skrewed faces and wry mouths) I despair of them; for they are friends to nobody: they love nothing but their altars and themselves; they have too much zeal to have any charity; they make debauchees in piety, as sinners do in wine; and are as quarrelsome in their religion, as other people are in their drink: so I hope nobody will mind what they say. But if any man (with flat plod shoes, a little band, greasy hair, and a dirty face, who is wiser than I, at the expence of being forty years older) happens to be offended at a story of a cock and a bull, and a priest and a bull-dog, I beg his pardon with all my heart; which, I hope, I shall obtain, by eating my words, and making this public recantations. I do therefore, for his satisfaction, acknowledge I lied, when I said, they never quit their hold; for in that little time I have lived in the world, I thank God I have seen them forced to it more than once; but next time I will speak with more caution and truth, and only say, they have very good teeth.

If I have offended any honest gentleman of the town, whose friendship or good word is woth the having, I am very sorry for it; I hope they will correct me as gently as they can, when they consider I have had no other design, in running a very great risk, than to divert (if possible) some part of their spleens, in spite of their wives and their taxes.

One word more about the bawdy, and I have done. I won the first night this thing was acted, some indecencies had like to have happened; but it was not my fault.

The fine gentleman of the play, drinking his mistress’s health in Nants brandy, from six in the morning to the time he waddled on upon the stage in the evening, had toasted himself up to such a pitch of vigour, I confess I once gave Amanda for gone, and am since (with all due respect to Mrs. Rogers) very sorry she escaped for I am confident a certain lady (let no one take it to herself that is handsome) who highly blames the play, for the barrenness of the conclusion, would then have allowed it a very natural close.


 *Found In: Bell’s British Theatre, Consisting of the most esteemed English Plays. Volume the Eleventh. Being the Fifth Volume of Comedies. Containing: The Refusal, by Colley Cibber. The Way of the World, by W. Congreve. Amphitryon, altered from Dryden by Dr. Hawkesworth. The Drummer, by Mr. Addison. The Relapse, by Sir John Vanbrugh. London: Printed for John Bell, near Exeter Exchange, in the Strand, MDCCLXXVII. [1777]

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Filed under 1770's, Culture, Drama, Great Britain, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Theater

Item of the Day: Congreve’s Way of the World (1761)

Full Title: The Works of Mr. William Congreve. Volume the Second. Containing Love for Love, a Comedy. The Way of the World, a Comedy. Birmingham, Printed by John Baskerville; for J. and R. Tonson, in the Strand, London. MDCCLXI. [First performed in 1700 Lincoln’s-Inns-Fields, London.]

The Way of the World. Act I. Scene I.

A Chocolate-House. Mirabell and Fainall, rising from Cards. Betty waiting.

MIRABELL. You are a fortunate Man, Mr. Fainall.

FAINALL. Have we done?

MIRABELL. What you please. I’ll play on to entertain you.

FAINALL. No, I’ll give you your Revenge another Time, when you are not so indifferent; you are thinking of Something else now, and play too negligently; the Coldness of a losing Gamester lessens the Pleasure of a Winner. I’d no play with a Man that slighted his ill Fortune, than I’d make Love to a Woman who undervalued the Loss of her Reputation.

MIRABELL. You have a Taste extremely delicate, and are for refining your Pleasures.

FAINALL. Prithee, why so reserv’d? Something has put you out of Humor.

MIRABELL. Not at all: I happen to be grave to Day; and you are gay; that’s all.

FAINALL. Confess, Millamant and you quarrell’d last Night, after I left you; my fair Cousin has some Humors that wou’d tempt the Patience of a Stoic. What, some Coxcomb came in, and was well receiv’d by her, while you were by?

MIRABELL. Witwoud and Petulant; and, what was worse, her Aunt, your Wife’s Mother, my evil Genius; or to sum up all in her own Name, my old Lady Wishfort came in.– 

FAINALL. O there it is then–She has a lasting Passion for you, and with Reason.–What, then my Wife was there?

MIRABELL. Yes, and Mrs. Marwood, and there or four more, whom I never saw before; seeing me, they all put on their grave Faces, whisper’d one another; then complain’d aloud of the Vapors, and after fell into a profound Silence.

FAINALL. They had a mind to be rid of you.

MIRABELL. For which Reason I resolv’d not to stir. At last the good old Lady broke thro’ her painful Taciturnity, with an Invective against long Visits. I would not have understood her, but Milamant joining in the Argument, I rose, and with a constrain’d Smile told her, I thought Nothing was so easy as to know when a Visit began to be troublesome; she redden’d, and I withdrew, without expecting her reply.

FAINALL. You were to blame to resent what she spoke only in Compliance with her Aunt.

MIRABELL. She is more Mistress of herself, than to be under the Necessity of such a Resignation.

FAINALL. What, tho’ half her Fortune depends upon her marrying with my Lady’s Approbation?

MIRABELL. I was then in such a Humor, that I shou’d have been better pleas’f if she had been less discreet.

FAINALL. Now I remember, I wonder not they were weary of you; last Night was one of their Cabal-Nights; they have ’em three Times a Week, and meet by Turns, at one another’s Apartments, where they come together like the Coroner’s Inquest, to sit upon the murder’d Reputations of the Week. You and I are excluded; and it was propos’d that all the Male Sex should be excepted; but some Body mov’d, that to avoid Scandal there might be one Man of the Community; upon which Motion Witwoud and Petulant were enroll’d Members.

MIRABELL. And who may have been the Foundress of this Sect? My Lady Wishfort, I warrant, who publishes her Detestation of Mankind; and full of the Vigor of Fifty five, declares for a Friend and Ratafia; and let Posterity shift for itself, she’ll breed no more.

FAINALL. The Discovery of your sham Addresses to her, to conceal your Love to her Niece, has provok’d this Separation: Had you dissembled better, Things might have continu’d in the State of Nature.

MIRABELL. I did as much as Man cou’d with any reasonable Conscience; I proceeded to the very last Act of Flattery with her, and was guilty of a Song in her Commendation. Nay, I got a Friend to put her in to a Lampoon, and compliment her with the Imputation of an Affair with a young Fellow, which I carry’d so far, that I told her the malicious Town took Notice that she was grown fat of a sudden; and when she lay in of a Dropsy, persuaded her she was reported to be in Labor. The Devil’s in’t, if an old Woman is to be flatter’d further, unless a Man shou’d endeavour downright personally to Debauch her; and that my Virtue forbad me. But for the Discovery of this Armour, I am indebted to your Friend, or your Wife’s Friend, Mrs. Marwood.

FAINALL.  What shou’d provoke her to be your Enemy, unless she has made you Advances, which you have slighted? Women do not easily forgive Omissions of that Nature.

MIRABELL. She was always civil to me, ’till of late: I confess I am not one of those Coxcombs who are apt to interpret a Woman’s good Manners to her Prejudice; and think that she who does not refuse ’em every Thing, can refuse ’em Nothing.

FAINALL. You are a gallant Man, Mirabell; and tho’ you may have Cruelty enough, not to satisfy a Lady’s Longing; you have too much Generosity, not to be tender of her Honor. Yet you speak with an Indifference which seems to be affected; and confesses you are conscious of a Negligence.

MIRABELL. You pursue the argument with a Distrust that seems to be unaffected, and confesses that you are conscious of a Concern, for which the Lady is more indebted to you, than is your Wife. 

FAINALL. Fy, fy, Friend, if you grow censorious I must leave you;–I’ll look upon the Gamesters in the next Room.

MIRABELL. Who are they?

FAINALL. Petulant and Witwoud–Bring me some Chocolate.

MIRABELL. Betty, what says your Clock?

BETTY. Turn’d of the last Canonical Hour, Sir.

MIRABELL. How pertinently the Jade answers me! Ha! almost one o’Clock! [Looking on his Watch.] O, y’are come.–

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Filed under 1700's, 1760's, Drama, Literature, Posted by Matthew Williams

Item of the Day: A Dissertation on Antient Tragedy (1766)

In: The Tragedies of Sophocles, translated from the Greek; (With A Dissertation on Antient Tragedy.) By the Rev. Thomas Francklin . . . A New Edition, carefully revised and corrected. Vol. I. London: Printed for T. Davies, in Russell-Street, Covent-Garden, 1766.




WHILST the taste, genius, and knowledge of the ancients, have been universally felt and acknowledged in every other part of polite literature, it is matter of admiration to consider, that the Greek Theatre should so long have remain’d in neglect and obscurity. In philosophy, morals, oratory, and heroic poetry, in every art and science, we look back to Greece, as the standard and model of perfection: the ruins of Athens afford, even to this day, fresh pleasure and delight; and, nothing but her stage seems to be forgotten by us. Homer, Xenophon, Demosthenes, and many other eminent Greek writers, have of late years put on an English habit, and gain’d admission even into what is call’d polite company; whilst Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, still lurk in schools and colleges; and very seldom make their appearance, at least with dirty leaves, in the libraries of the great. To what shall we attribute a judgment so capricious and so unaccountable? partly, perhaps, to the hasty severity of ignorant foes, and partly to the outrageous zeal of* mistaken friendship. The fate of Antient Tragedy hath, indeed, been singularly unfortunate: some painters have drawn too flattering a likeness of her; whilst others, have presented us with nothing but a caricature; some exalt the Greek drama, as the most perfect of all human compositions, without the least spot or blemish; whilst others affect to call it the infant state of the stage, weak, infirm and imperfect; and as such, treat it with the highest degree of negligence and contempt: exaggerated thus on the one hand by the extravagant encomiums of injudicious learning, and debased on the other by the rash censures of modern petulance, it’s real and intrinsic merit hath never been thoroughly known, or candidly enquired into: the best method however in this, as in every other disputed point, is to set aside all prejudice and authority, and determine the cause by our own reason and judgment, from a fair, full, and impartial view of it.

That the spectator may be able to form a proper and complete idea of any object presented to him, it is necessary to place him in such a situation, as that his eye may at once comprehend the whole, and every part of it; for this purpose, I have collected and ranged in order a few materials, which, in the hands of some abler writer, may possibly lay the foundation for a complete history of the Antient Drama; in the mean time, the following sheets confine themselves to, and pretend to no more than, a brief account of the origin and progress of the Greek Tragedy; it’s end and purport, the several parts, properties, and conduct of it; the construction, scenery, and decorations of the theatre; to which is added, a transient, but necessary view of the genius, character and situation, religion, morals and politics of the people, before whom it was represented; together with a short sketch of the lives and characters of the three great tragedians. . . .


*The remarks which are handed own to us on Antient Tragedy, have hitherto, for the most part, consisted of mere verbal criticisms, various readings, or general and trite exclamations of undistinguishing applause, made dull and phlegmatic commentators, totally void of taste and judgment; add to this, that the old tragedians have been shamefully disguised and misrepresented to the unlearned by the false medium of bad translations.



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Filed under 1760's, Ancient Greece, Drama, Greek/Roman Translations, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

Item of the Day: All for Love (1692)

Full Title: All for Love: or, World well Lost. A Tragedy, as it is Acted at the Theatre-Royal, and Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile. Written by Mr. Dryden. In the Savoy: Printed for H. Herringman, and sold by R. Bently, J. Tonson, F. Saunders, and T. Bennet, 1692.


The death of Anthony and Cleopatra, is a Subject which has been treated by the greatest Wits of our Nation, after Shakespear; and by all so variously, that their Example has given me the confidence to try my self in this Bowe of Ulysses amongst the Crowd of Sutors; and, withal, to take my own measures, in aiming at the Mark. I doubt not but the same Motive has prevailed with all of us in this attempt; I mean the excellency of the Moral: for the chief Persons represented, were famous Patterns of unlawful Love; and their end accordingly was unfortunate. All reasonable Men have long since concluded, That the Heroe of the Poem, ought not to be a Character of perfect Virtue, for, then, he could not, without injustice, be made unhappy; nor yet altogether wicked, because he could not then be pitied: I have therefore steer’d the middle course; and have drawn the character of Anthony as favourably as Plutarch, Appian, and Dion Cassius wou’d give me leave: the like I have observ’d in Cleopatra. That which is wanting to work up the pity to a greater heighth, was not afforded me by the story: for the crimes of Love which they both committed, were not occasioned by any necessity, or fatal ignorance, but were wholly voluntary; since our passions are, or ought to be, within our power. The Fabrick of the Play is regular enough, as to the inferior parts of it; and the Unities of Time, Place and Action, more exactly observ’d, than, perhaps, the English Theatre requires. Particularly, the Action is so much one, that it is the only of the kind without Episode, or Underplot; every Scene in the Tragedy conducing to the main design, and every Act concluding with a turn of it. The greatest error in the contrivance seems to be in the person of Octavia: For, though I might use the privilege of a Poet, to introduce her into Alexandria, yet I had not enough consider’d, that the compassion she mov’d to her self and Children, was destructive to that which I reserv’d for Anthony and Cleopatra; whose mutual love being founded upon vice, must lessen the favour of the Audience to them, when Virtue and Innocence were oppress’d by it. And, though I justified Anthony in some measure, by making Octavia’s departure, to proceed wholly from her self; yet the force of the first Machine still remain’d; and the dividing of pity, like the cutting of a River into many channels, abated the strength of the natural Stream. But this is an Objection which none of my Criticks have urg’d against me; and therefore I might have let it pass, if I could have resolv’d to have been partial to my self. The faults my enemies have found, are rather cavil concerning little, and not essential Decencies; which a Master of the Ceremonies may decide betwixt us. The French Poets, I confess, are strict Observers of these Punctilio’s: They would not, for example, have suffer’d Cleopatra and Octavia to have met; or if they had met, there must only have pass’d betwixt them some cold civilities, but not eagerness of repartee, for fear of offending against the greatness of their Characters, and the modesty of their Sex. This Objection I foresaw, and at the same time contemn’d: for I judg’d it both natural and probable, that Octavia, proud of her new-gain’d Conquest, would search out Cleopatra to triumph over her; and that Cleopatra, thus attack’d, was not of a spirit to shun the encounter: and ’tis not unlikely, that two exasperated Rivals should use such Satyr as I have put into their mouths; for after all, though the one were a Roman, and the other a Queen, they were both Women. ‘Tis true, some actions, though natural, are not fit to be represented; and broad obscenities in words, ought in good manners be avoided: expressions therefore are a modest cloathing of our thoughts, as Breeches and Petticoats are of our bodies. If I have kept my self within the bounds of modesty, all beyond it is but nicety and affectation; which is no more but Modesty deprav’d into a Vice: they betray them selves who are too quick of apprehension in such cases, and leave all reasonable Men to imagine worse of them, than of the Poet. . . .


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Filed under 1690's, Drama, Literature, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Theater