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PLAUTUS, the venerable father of Roman comedy, who flourished during the second Punic war, left us a play on the subject of Amphitryon, which has had the honour to be deemed worthy of imitation by Molière and Dryden. It cannot be expected that the plain, blunt, and inartificial style of so rude an age should bear any comparison with that of authors who enjoyed the highest advantages of the polished times to which they were an ornament. But the merit of having devised and embodied most of the comic distresses, which have excited laughter throughout so many ages, is to be attributed to the ancient bard, upon whose original conception of the plot his successors have made few and inconsiderable improvements. It is true, that, instead of a formal Prologus, who stepped forth, in the character of Mercury, and gravely detailed to the audience the plot of the play, Molière and Dryden have introduced it in the modern more artificial method, by the dialogue of the actors in the first scene. It is true, also, that, with great contempt of one of the unities, afterwards deemed so indispensable by the ancients, Plautus introduces the birth of Hercules into a play, founded upon the intrigue which occasioned that
Yet with all these disadvantages, and that of the rude flatness of his dialogue,—resting frequently, for wit, upon the most miserable puns,—the comic device of the two Sosias; the errors into which the malice of Mercury plunges his unlucky original ; the quarrel of Alcmena with her real husband, and her reconciliation with Jupiter in his stead; the final confronting of the two Amphitryos; and the astonishment of the unfortunate general, at finding every proof of his identity exhibited by his rival,--are all, however rudely sketched, the inventions of the Roman poet. In one respect it would seem, that the jeu de théâtre, necessary to render the piece probable upon the stage, was better managed in the time of Plautus than in that of Dryden and Molière.
Upon a modern stage it is evidently difficult to introduce two pair of characters, so extremely alike as to make it at all probable, or even possible, that the mistakes, depending upon their extreme resemblance, could take place. But, favoured by the masks and costume of the ancient theatre, Plautus contrived to render Jupiter and Mercury so exactly like Amphitryon and Sosia, that they were obliged to retain certain marks, supposed to be invisible to the other persons of the drama, by which the audience themselves might be enabled to distinguish the gods from the mortals, whose forms they had assumed.
The modern poets have treated the subject, which they had from Plautus, each according to the fashion of his country; and so far did the correctness of the French stage exceed ours at that period, that the palm of the comic writing must be, at once, awarded to Molière. For, though Dryden had the advantage of the French author's labours, from which, and from Plautus, he has translated liberally, the wretched taste of the age has induced him to lard the piece with gratuitous indelicacy. He is, in general, coarse and vulgar, where Molière is witty ; and where the Frenchman ventures upon a double meaning, the Englishman always contrives to make it a single one. Yet although inferior to Molière, and accommodated to the gross taste of the seventeeth century, “ Amphitryon” is one of the happiest effusions of Dryden's comic muse.
He has enriched the plot by the intrigue of Mercury and Phædra; and the petulant interested “Queen of Gipsies," as her lover terms her, is no bad paramour for the God of Thieves.
In the scenes of a higher cast, Dryden far outstrips both the French and Roman poet. The sensation to be expressed is not that of sentimental affection, which the good father of Olympus was not capable of feeling ; but love, of that grosser and subordinate kind which prompted Jupiter in his intrigues, has been by none of the ancient poets expressed in more beautiful verse than that in which Dryden has clothed it, in the scenes between Jupiter and Alcmena. Even Milbourne, who afterwards attacked our author with such malignant asperity, was so sensible of the merit of
* The caution is given by Mercury in the Prologue.
“Nunc internosse ut vos possitis facilius,
Amphitryon," that he addressed to the publisher the following letter and copy of verses, which Mr. Malone's industry recovered from among Mr. Tonson's papers.
YARMOUTH, Novemb. 24.-90.
“You 'l wonder perhaps at this from a stranger; but ye reason of it may perhaps abate somewhat of ye miracle, and it's this. On Thursday the twentyth instant, I receiv’d Mr. Drydens AMPHYTRIO: I leave out the Greeke termination, as not so proper in my opinion, in English. But to passe that; I liked the play, and read it over with as much of criticisme and ill nature as yo time (being about one in ye morning, and in bed,) would permit. Going to sleep very well pleasd, I could not leave my bed in ye morning without this sacrifice to the authours genius : it was too sudden to be correct, but it was very honestly meant, and is submitted to yours and Mr. Ds. disposall.
Hail, Prince of Witts! thy fumbling Age is past,
“Not Phoebus could with gentler words pursue
“Yet briske and airy too, thou fill'st the stage,