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BY HARTLEY COLERIDGE.
HE lives of our dramatists "of the great race" furnish few materials for drama. They are provokingly barren of incident. They present neither complicated plots, nor striking situations*, nor well-contrasted characters. In their own age, they were overlooked as too familiar-in the next, cast aside as unfashionable. The conjectures of recent curiosity are not more certain than the Syrian Pantheism of the Irish round towers, the hieroglyphic dynasties of Egypt, or the earthenware theology of Etruria.
Many causes may have contributed to efface the footsteps of those great masters from the sands of time. Theatres were burned by accident or design-demolished by authority of mob, parliament, corporation, and prentices‡, and at last suppressed by a civil conflict, which, realizing the extremities of tragedy and farce, absorbed all memories, all hopes, and interests, in itself. Libraries were dispersed, plundered, or
I beg pardon. The life of Ben Jonson does present at least one striking situation, which would make a fine picture either on the stage or on canvas. I allude to that juncture, when amid a company of friends assembled to congratulate his discharge from prison, his mother produced the packet of poison, which she meant to have given him, had he been sentenced to pillory and mutilation for his reflections on the King's countrymen. But is there any good authority for the story?
The fate of Marlow was a real tragedy; I am afraid but too certain. George Peele was actually introduced upon the stage under the designation of George Pie-board in the "Widow of Watling Street;" a play which Schlegel maintains to have been written by Shakspeare.
Those who are curious to ascertain the degree of certainty intended, may consult Mr. O'Brien's "Round Towers of Ireland," the works of Champollion, Klaproth, &c., and the "Storia degli antichi Popoli Italiani, di Giuseppe Micali."
A ludicrous" Ballade in praise of London' Prentices, and what they did at the Cockpit Play-house in Drury Lane," may be found in the first volume of Mr. Collier's "Annals of the Stage," p. 402. This outrage took place in 1617, on Shrove Tuesday, a day of general licence, barbarity, and riot; when the London apprentices claimed an immemorial privilege of attacking houses of ill-fame, covering their true English love of mischief with a pretence of moral reform. The following verse may be quoted as illustrative of the text.
"Bookes old and young on heap they flung,
And burn'd them in the blazes,
Tom Decker, Heywood, Middleton,
And other wandering crazies;
retailed for daily sustenance. A new era of dramatic composition commenced with the Restoration, when the mighty labours of the past were just old enough to be superannuated, and not old enough to be antique. Milton lived on in the solitude of his blindness-the ghost and witness of departed greatness. Cowley and Dryden contrived to merit fame without foregoing popularity, by investing the robust intellect and subtile fancy of a former generation in modish habiliments. Butler, like Hogarth, struck out a way for himself, in which he has had many imitators, and no rivals. But no one of these, with all their varied excellence, was suited to create or sustain a taste for the imagination and philosophy which they superseded. The town and the court, not the people, were paramount on Parnassus, and town and court alike were subjected to French influence.
But, I believe, after all, that the principal reason why so little has been told of our old dramatists is that there was very little to tell.
They might, no doubt, have written most interesting autobiographies or reminiscences. But I am not aware that, in that diary-keeping age, any dramatic writer left a diary. It is hardly probable that many dramatists have chronicled their days. Not that they were too constantly engaged. Sir Edward Coke, Richard Baxter, Whitlocke, Clarendon,-lawyers, statesmen, kings, have left minute and regular diaries *. men of pleasure have kept an audit book of their sins, and recorded of themselves what one might fancy a Papist would blush to mutter in confession. But the life of a dramatist, dependent for his daily bread upon the caprice of actors, and the humour of chance-collected audiences, must be too exciting, too fragmentary, for an employment which requires a calm, if not a cheerful, mind. The man whose means of existence
Poor Daye that day not 'scaped away;
And what still more amazes,
Which every body praises."
"Immortal Cracke" never recovered from his scorching; but is dead and forgotten. Mr. Collier doubts whether it be the name of an author or of a play. Assuredly the latter, or perhaps the name of a character. By the way, crack, often used by our old writers for a mischievous urchin, is probably an abridgment of crackrope. Massinger uses the term at full length.
The Globe on the Bankside was burned 29th June, 1613. The Fortune in Golding Lane on the Sunday night preceding December 15. Ben Jonson alludes, in his Execration upon Vulcan, to both these conflagrations; at the former he seems to have been present. The Globe was fired by the wadding of the chambers (small pieces of ordnance) falling on the thatch. The cause of the Fortune's misfortune does not appear. Prynne of course ascribes both combustions to the Divine judgment. The Prynnes of our times were equally charitable when the two " great houses" were consumed. Lighter and saner wits do not seem to have taken the matter very seriously. Sir Henry Wotton, describing the fire of the Globe in a letter to his nephew, concludes thus: "This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not, by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with bottle ale."-Annals, vol. iii. 299. Probably a hit at the preposterous size and padding of the femoral garments then in use.
*There is an excellent article on diaries in D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature. He does not mention the very curious diary of Pepys, that whimsical compound of knavery and simplicity, of politics and piety, of foppery and worldly wisdom; nor the yet more interesting journal of the excellent Evelyn; nor Bubb Doddington's, the honestest self-exposure ever made by a self-conscious, self-satisfied rogue. Mr. Collier
are at the mercy of a contingent future, has little inclination to dwell upon the past. You might as well expect the diary of a gamester.
However it be, our elder dramatists have told us little about themselves, and their contemporaries have told us little about them. Letters they must occasionally have written; and the letters of that time, when newspapers were not, contain a great deal more matter of fact than the flippant and sentimental missives of later date. Yet, except Ben Jonson, whose epistles ought surely to be appended to his works, or printed in some accessible form, has any dramatist left "a collection of letters ?" There is, indeed, a short and melancholy note, in which the name of Massinger is joined with those of Field and Daborne; a memorial of poverty, only less afflicting than poor Burns' death-bed supplication for the same trifle of five pounds.
The incuriosity of contemporaries has been amply atoned in the last century. Letters, diaries, memoirs, family papers, public records-everything in manuscript or print has been rummaged with indefatigable eyes. Every syllable, parenthesis, blank, and erasure, has been tortured-yea exorcised, for intelligence respecting men, of whom their contemporaries hardly thought it worth while to invent anecdotes. Much collateral knowledge has been elicited by the research, and much forgotten literature brought to light; but, with regard to the immediate objects of inquiry, it has rather led to additional doubt of what was heretofore taken for granted, than added to the scanty amount of ascertained facts. It is very well that so few reputations have suffered by the scrutiny; for, had the dramatists been conspicuous for either vice or folly, they would not have shared the fate of the heroes before Agamemnon. They lived in an age of personality. The great eye of the world was not then, any more than now, so intent on things and principles, as not to have a corner for the infirmities of individuals. I question whether, with all our newspapers, reviews, magazines, biographies, and autobiographies, a more personal history could be compiled of the courts of George the III. and IV. than of those of Elizabeth and James. In no age have men been wanting to woo the favour of the multitude by informing them, that their Betters were no better than they. The numerous memoirs, diaries, pamphlets, letters, so costly to collectors; "Wilson, Winwood, Weldon, Osborne, Peyton, Sanderson," and others, who, as Mr. Gifford remarks, "contributed to propagate a number of scandalous stories, which should have been left sub lodice,
gives some curious extracts, surely not intended for the public eye, from the diurnal of Sir Humphrey Mildmay, a man of wit and pleasure about town in the age of Massinger. The following, it will be admitted, are characteristic items, and evince good husbandry in sinning.
It does not appear that extravagance was among Sir Humphrey's failings. He was probably a Romanist, for among his disbursements we find eight shillings for a Rhemish Testament, and three for popish books; but, perhaps, he hankered after all forbidden things. The MS. is in the library at Lambeth, and may supply some valuable information on the subject of prices.