1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > English Drama. Irish Drama.

Drama
(Part 13)




English Drama. Irish Drama.

Among the nations of Germanic descent, but one—our own—succeeded under the influence of the Renaissance movement in transforming the last growths of the mediaeval drama into the beginnings of a great and enduring national dramatic literature. This transformation connects itself with one of the greatest epochs of the national history, or, more properly speaking, forms part of it; the Elizabethan drama and the Elizabethan age are, it is no exaggeration to assert, equally inconceivable the one without the other.

It has been seen how already in the reign of Edward VI., the breath of a new age with its "new learning" had quickened the relatively inanimate species of the morality into the first chronicle history (still intermingled with remnants of the earlier species); and how at an even earlier date John Heywood’s interludes had bridged the distance separating from only partially relieved abstractions the concrete directness of comedy proper. Soon afterwards, the study and imitation of the ancient classical drama were introduced into the English world of letters ; and under their influence tragedy and comedy, which might otherwise have from the first coalesced, were in their early growths in our literature kept asunder, though not absolutely so. Already, in Queen Mary’s reign, translation was found the readiest form of expression offering itself to literary scholarship, and Italian examples helped to commend Seneca, the most modern of the ancient tragedians, as a favourite author for such exercises. With the year of Elizabeth’s accession began a series of translations of his plays by Jasper Heywood (John Heywood’s son) and others; and to the direct influence of one of Seneca’s tragedies1 is to be ascribed the composition of the first tragedy proper in the English tongue, the Gorboduc (afterwards renamed Ferrex and Porrex) of T. Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, with whom T. Norton was joint author (1562). Though, unlike Gorboduc, classical in theme, and in some respects approaching nearer to the true conception of tragedy in their treatment of dramatic passion, the nearly contemporary Apius and Virginia (c. 1563) and Preston’s Cambises King of Percia, in the roughness of their form more closely resemble the old religious drama ; of other tragedies on classical subjects we have only the names, except in the instance of Gascoigne’s Jocasta, a free version of the Phaenissae of Euripides (1566), and of R. Edwards’s Damon and Pithias (printed 1571), which calls itself a comedy, and is in fact a mixture of both species. Simultaneously with the influence, directly or indirectly exercised, of classical literature, that of Italian, both dramatic and narrative, asserted itself ; early works from this source were the first Romeo and Juliet (not preserved, but apparently anterior in date even to Gorboduc), Tancred and Gismunda (1563?), and G. Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra (printed 1578), from which Shakespeare took the story of Measure for Measure.

From the double danger which threatened our tragic drama in the days of its infancy—that it would congeal on the cold heights of classical themes, or dissolve its vigour in the glowing heat of a passion fiercer than that of the Italians (Inglese Italianato è un diavolo incamafo)—it was preserved, more than by any other cause, by its happy association with the traditions of the national history. The crude growth of the chronicle history proved strong enough to assert itself by the side of tragedy based on classical and Italian models ; and in a series of works of more or less uncertain dates, a vein was worked from which Shakespeare was to draw the richest ore. Among these rude compositions, which intermixed the blank verse introduced by Gorboduc with prose, and freely mingled comic with tragic elements—works half-epic, half-dramatic, and popular in form as they were national in theme,—are the Famous Victories of Henry V., acted before 1588, The Troublesome Raigne of King John (printed 1591), and the True Chronicle History of King Leir (acted 1593). A still further step in advance was taken in what really deserves the title of the Tragedy of Sir Thomas More (c. 1590), not so much on account of the relative nearness of the subject to the time of its treatment, as because of the tragic responsibility of character here already clearly worked out.

Such had been the beginnings of tragedy in England up to the time when the genius of dramatists worthy to be called the predecessors of Shakespeare, under the influence of a creative literary epoch, seized the form ready to their hands. The birth of comedy, at all times a process of less labour, had slightly preceded that of tragedy in the history of our drama. Isolated Latin comedies had been produced in the original or in English versions or reproductions as early as the reign of Henry VIII., and the morality and its descendant, the interlude, pointed the way towards nationalizing and popularizing types equally fitted to divert Roman and Italian and English audiences. Thus the earliest extant English comedy, N. Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister, which cannot be dated later than 1551, may be described as a genuinely English adaptation of Plautus, while its successor, Gammer Gurton’s Needle, printed 1575, and probably written by (Bishop) Still, has an original, and in consequence a slighter, though by no means unamusing, plot. In the main, however, our early English comedy, while occasionally introducing characters of genuinely native origin, and appealing to the traditional humours of Will Summer, the court-fool of Henry VIII.,2 or Grim, the collier of Croydon,2 was content to borrow its themes from Italian or classical sources; Ariosto’s I Suppositi found a translator in Gascoigne4 (1566), and the Menaechmi of Plautus translators or imitators in writers of rather later dates.5 While on the one hand the mixture of tragic with comic motives was already leading in the direction of tragi-comedy, the precedent of the Italian pastoral drama encouraged the introduction of figures and stories from classical mythology; and the rapid and versatile influence of Italian corned seemed likely to continue to control the progress of the lighter branch of the English drama.

Out of such promises as these the glories of our drama were ripened by the warmth and light of the great Elizabethan age—of which the beginnings may fairly be reckoned from the third decennium of the reign to which it owes its name. The queen’s steady love of dramatic entertainments could not of itself have led, though it undoubtedly contributed, to such a result. Against the attacks which a nascent puritanism was already directing against the stage by the hands of Northbrooke, the repentant playwright Gosson, Stubbes, and others, were to be set not only the barren favour of royalty, and the more direct patronage of great nobles, but the fact that literary authorities were already weighing the endeavours of the English drama in the balance of respectful criticism, and that in the abstract at least the claims of both tragedy and comedy were upheld by those who shrunk from the desipience of idle pastimes. As the popularity of the stage increased, the functions of playwright and actor, whether combined or not, began to hold out a reasonable promise of personal gain. Nor, above all, was that higher impulse, which leads men of talent and genius to attempt forms of art in harmony with the tastes and tendencies of their times, wanting to the group of writers who can be remembered by no nobler name than that of Shakespeare’s predecessors.

The lives of all of these are, of course, in part contemporary with the life of Shakespeare himself; nor was there de any substantial difference in the circumstances under which of most of them, and he, led their lives as dramatic authors. A distinction was manifestly kept up between poets and playwrights. Of the contempt entertained for the actor’s profession some fell to the share of the dramatist; "even an Lodge," says Dr Ingleby, "who had indeed never trod the stage, but had written several plays, and had no reason to be ashamed of his antecedents, speaks of the vocation of the play-maker as sharing the odium attaching to the actor." Among the dramatists themselves good fellowship and literary partnership only at times asserted themselves as stronger than the tendency to mutual jealousy and abuse; of all chapters of dramatic history, the annals of the early Elizabethan stage perhaps least resemble those of Arcadia.

Moreover, the theatre had hardly found its strength as a powerful element in the national life, when it was involved in a bitter controversy, with which it had originally no connection, on behalf of an ally whose sympathy with it can only have been of a very limited kind. The Marprelate controversy in 1589 led to a stoppage of stage plays which proved only temporary; but the general result of the attempt to make the stage a vehicle of political abuse and invective was beyond a doubt to coarsen and degrade both plays and players. The true remedy was at last applied, when from about the year 1594 the chief London actors became divided into two great rival companies—the Lord Chamberlain’s and the Lord Admiral’s—which alone received licences. Instead of half-a-dozen or more companies whose jealousies communicated themselves to the playwrights belonging to them, there were now, besides the Children of the Chapel, two established bodies of actors, directed by steady and, in the full sense of the word, respectable men. To the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, which, after being settled at "the Theater," moved to the Globe on the Bankside in 1599, Shakespeare and Richard Burbadge, the greatest of the Elizabethan actors, belonged; the Lord Admiral’s was managed by Philip Henslowe, the author of the Diary, and Edward Alleyn, the founder of Dulwich College, and was ultimately, in 1600, settled at the Fortune. In these and other houses were performed the plays of our Elizabethan dramatists, with few adventitious aids, the performance being crowded into a brief afternoon, when it is obvious that only the idler sections of the population could attend. No woman might appear at a playhouse unless masked; on the stage, down to the Restoration, women’s parts continued to be acted by boys.

It is futile to take no account of such outward circumstances as these and many which cannot here be noted in surveying the progress of the literature of the Elizabethan drama. No dramatic literature which has any claim to rank beside it—not that of Athens nor those of modern Italy and Spain, nor those of France and Germany in their classic periods—had to contend against such odds; a mighty inherent strength alone ensured to it the vitality which it so triumphantly asserted, and which enabled it to run so unequalled a course.

Among Shakespeare’s predecessors John Lyly (1554-1660), whose plays were all written for the Children of the Chapel and the Children of St Paul’s, holds a position apart in our dramatic literature. The euphuism, to which his famous romance gave its name, likewise distinguishes his mythological,1 quasi-historical,2 allegorical,3 and satirical4 comedies. But his real service to the progress of our drama is to be sought neither in his choice of subjects nor in his imagery—though to his fondness for fairy-lore and for the whole phantasmagoria of legend, classical as well as romantic, his contemporaries, and Shakespeare in particular, were indebted for a stimulative precedent. It lies in his adoption of Gascoigne’s innovation of writing plays in prose ; and in his having, though under the fetters of an affected and vicious style, given the first example of brisk and vivacious dialogue—an example to which even such successors as Shakespeare and Jonson were indebted. Thomas Kyd (d. c. 1594), the author of the Spanish Tragedy, possesses some of the characteristics, but none of the genius, of the greatest tragic dramatist who preceded Shakespeare. No slighter tribute than this is assuredly the due of Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), whose violent end prematurely closed a poetic career of dazzling brilliancy. His earliest play, Tamburlaine the Great, in which the use of blank verse was introduced upon the English public stage, while full of the "high tounding terms" of an extravagant and often bombastic diction, is already marked by the passion which was this poet's most characteristic feature, and which was to find expression so luxuriant in his Doctor Faustus and so surpassingly violent in his Jew of Malta. His master-piece, Edward II., is a tragedy of singular pathos and of a dramatic power unapproached by any of his contemporaries. George Peele (1552-1596-7) was a far more versatile writer even as a dramatist; but though his plays contain passages of exquisite beauty, not one of them is worthy to be ranked by the side of Marlowe’s Edward II., compared with which, if indeed not absolutely, Peele’s Chronicle of Edward I. still stands on the level of the species to which its title and character alike assign it. His finest play is undoubtedly David and Bethsabe, which resembles Edward I. in construction, but far surpasses it in beauty of language and versification, besides treating its subject with greatly superior dignity. If the difference between Peele and Shakespeare is still in many respects besides that of genius an immeasurable one, we seem to come into something like a Shakespearian atmosphere in more than one passage of the plays of the unfortunate Robert Greene (1561-1592), unfortunate perhaps in nothing more enduringly than in his notorious enmity to Shakespeare himself. His genius, which shone most brightly in plays treating English life and scenes, was in the main free from the pedantry which occasionally besets the flight of Peele’s and even of Marlowe’s muse; and his most delightful work at all events seems to breathe something of that indescribable freshness which we recognize, if not as a peculiarly Shakespearian characteristic, at least as one belonging to none but a truly national art. Thomas Lodge (c. 1558-1625), Thomas Nash the redoubtable pamphleteer (c. 1565-c. 1602), Henry Chettle (1564-c. 1667), who worked the chords of both pity6 and terror7 with equal vigour, and Anthony Munday (1553-1633), better remembered for his city pageants than for his plays, are among the other more generally known writers of the early Elizabethan drama, though not all of them can strictly speaking be called predecessors of Shakespeare.

The common characteristics of nearly all these dramatists were in accordance with those of the great age to which they belonged. Stirring times called for stirring themes, such as those of "Mahomet, Scipio, and Tamerlane;" and these again for a corresponding vigour of treatment. Neatness and symmetry of construction were neglected for fulness and variety of matter. Novelty and grandeur of subject seemed well matched by a swelling amplitude and often reckless extravagance of diction. As if from an inner necessity, the balance of rhymed couplets gave way to the impetuous march of blank-verse; "strong lines" were as inevitably called for as strong situations and strong characters. Distinct as the chief of these poets are from one another by the marks impressed upon both form and matter by individual genius, yet the stamp of the age is upon them all. Writing for the stage only, of which some of them possessed a personal experience, they acquired an instinctive insight into the laws of dramatic cause and effect, and infused a warm vitality into the dramatic literature which they produced, so to speak, for immediate consumption. On the other hand, the same cause made rapidity of workmanship indispensable to a successful playwright. How a play was produced, how many hands had been at work upon it, what loans and what spoliations had been made in the process, were considerations of less moment than the question whether it was produced, and whether it succeeded. His harness—frequently double or triple—was inseparable from the lusty Pegasus of the early English drama, and its genius toiled, to borrow the phrase of the Attic comedian, "like an Arcadian mercenary."

This period of our drama though it is far from being one of crude effort, could not therefore yet be one of full consummation. In tragedy the advance which had been made in the choice of great themes, in knitting closer the connection between the theatre and the national history, in vindicating to passion its right to adequate expression, was already enormous. In comedy the advance had been less decisive and less independent ; much had been gained in reaching greater freedom of form and something in enlarging the range of subjects ; but artificiality had proved a snare in the one direction, while the licence of the comic stage, upheld by favourite "clowns," such as Kemp or Tarleton, had not succumbed before more exacting demands. The way of escaping the dilemma had, however, been already recognized to lie in the construction of suitable plots, for which a full storehouse was open in the popular traditions preserved in national ballads, and in the growing literature of translated foreign fiction, or of native imitations of it. Meanwhile, the aberration of the comic stage to political and religious controversy, which it could never hope to treat with real freedom in a country provided with a strong monarchy and a dogmatic religion, seemed likely to extinguish the promise of the beginnings of English romantic comedy.

These were the circumstances under which the greatest of dramatists began to devote his genius to the theatre. Shakespeare’s career as a writer of plays can have differed little in its beginnings from those of his contemporaries and rivals. Before or while he was proceeding from the re-touching and re-writing of the plays of others to original dramatic composition, the most gifted of those we have termed his predecessors had passed away. He had been decried as an actor before he was known as an author; and after living through days of darkness for the theatre, if not for himself, attained, before the close of the century, to the beginnings of his prosperity and the beginnings of his fame. But if we call him fortunate, it is not because of such rewards as these. As a poet Shakespeare was no doubt happy in his times, which intensified the national character, expanded the national mind, and were able to add their stimulus even to such a creative power as his. He was happy in the antecedents of the form of literature which commended itself to his choice, and in the opportunities which it offered in so many directions for an advance to heights yet undiscovered and unknown. What he actually accomplished was due to his genius, whose achievements are immeasurable like itself. His influence upon the progress of our national drama divides itself in very unequal proportions into a direct and an indirect one. To the former alone reference can here be made.

Already the first editors of Shakespeare’s works in a collected form recognized so marked a distinction between his plays taken from English history and those treating other historical subjects (whether ancient or modern) that, while they included the latter among the tragedies at large, they grouped the former as histories by themselves. These histories are in their literary genesis a development of the chronicle histories of Shakespeare’s predecessors and contemporaries, the taste for which had greatly increased towards the beginning of his own career as a dramatist, under influences naturally connecting themselves with the general current of national life and sentiment in this epoch. Though it cannot be assumed that Shakespeare composed his several dramas from English history in the sequence of the chronology of their themes, his genius gave to the entire series an inner harmony which has not unnaturally inspire commentators with the wish to prove it a symmetrically constructed whole. He thus brought this peculiarly national species to a perfection which made it difficult, if not impossible, for his later contemporaries and successors to add to it more than an occasional supplement. None of them was found able or ready to take up the thread where Shakespeare had left it, after perfunctorily attaching the present to the past by a work (probably not all his own) which must be regarded as the end rather than the crown of the series of his histories.1 But to furnish such supplements accorded, little with the tastes and tendencies of the later Elizabethans; and with the exception of an isolated work,2 the national historical drama in Shakespeare reached at once its perfection and its close. The ruder form of the old chronicle history for a time survived the advance made upon it; but the efforts in this field of T. Heywood,3 S. Rowley,4 and others are, from a literary point of view, anachronisms.

Of Shakespeare’s other plays the several groups exercised a more direct influence upon the general progress of our dramatic literature. His Roman tragedies, though following their authorities with much the same fidelity as that of the English histories, even more effectively taught the great lesson of free dramatic treatment of historic themes, and thus pre-eminently became the perennial models of the modern historic drama. His tragedies on other themes, which necessarily admitted of a more absolute freedom of treatment, established themselves as the examples for all time of the highest kind of tragedy. Where else is exhibited with the same fulness the struggle between will and obstacle, character and circumstance? Where is mirrored with equal power and variety the working of those passions in the mastery of which over man lies his doom? Here, above all, Shakespeare as compared with his predecessors, as well as with his successors, "is that nature which they paint and draw." He threw open to modern tragedy a range of hitherto unknown breadth and depth and height, and emancipated the national drama in its noblest forms from limits to which it could never again restrict itself without a consciousness of having renounced its enfranchisement. Happily for the variety of his creative genius on the English stage, no divorce had been proclaimed between the serious and the comic, and no division of species had been established such as he himself ridicules as pedantic when it professes to be exhaustive. The comedies of Shakespeare accordingly refuse to be tabulated in deference to any method of classification deserving to be called precise; and several of them are comedies only according to a purely technical use of the term. In those in which the comic interest asserts itself to the instinct of reader or spectator as supreme, it is still of its nature incidental to the progress of the action ; for it seems a just criticism (and one agreeing with what we can conclude as to Shakespeare’s process of construction) that of all his comedies but one5 is in both design and effect a comedy of character proper. Thus in this direction, while the unparalleled wealth of his invention renewed or created a whole gallery of types, he left much to be done by his successors; while the truest secrets of his comic art, which interweaves fancy with observation, draws wisdom from the lips of fools, and imbues with character what all other hands would have left shadowy, monstrous, or trivial, are among the things inimitable belonging to the individuality of his poetic genius.

The influences of Shakespeare’s diction and versification upon those of the English drama in general can hardly be over-rated, though it would be next to impossible to state them definitely. In these points, Shakespeare’s manner as a writer was progressive; and this progress has been deemed sufficiently well traceable in his plays to be used as an aid in seeking to determine their chronological sequence. The general laws of this progress accord with those of the natural advance of creative genius ; artificiality gives way to freedom, and freedom in its turn submits to a greater degree of regularity and care. In versification as in diction the earliest and the latest period of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing are more easily recognizable than what lies between and may be called the normal period, the plays belonging to which in form most resemble one another, and are least affected by distinguishable peculiarities—such as the rhymes and intentionally euphuistic colouring of style which characterize the earliest, or the feminine endings of the lines and the more condensed manner of expression common to the latest plays. But such distinctions apart, there can be on doubt but that in verse and in prose alike, Shakespeare’s style, so far as it admitted of reproduction, is itself to be regarded as the norm of that of the Elizabethan drama, that in it the prose form of English comedy possesses its first accepted model, and that in it the chosen metre of the English versified drama established itself as irremovable unless at the risk of an unnatural experiment.

It may seem paradoxical to assert that it is by their construction that Shakespeare’s plays exerted the most palpable influence upon the English drama, as well as upon the modern drama of the Germanic nations in general, and upon such forms of the Romance drama as have been in more recent times based upon it. For it was not in construction that his greatest strength lay, or that the individuality of his genius could raise him above the conditions under which he worked in common with his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. Yet the fact that he reconciled these conditions with creations of matchless strength and of unequalled fidelity to the demands of nature and art, established them as the conditions of what a popular (and consequently often abused) term has instinctively come to designate as the Shakespearian drama. The great and irresistible demand on the part of Shakespeare’s public was for incident—a demand which of itself necessitated a method of construction different from that of the Greek drama, or of those modelled more or less closely upon it. To no other reason is to be ascribed the circumstance that Shakespeare so constantly combined two actions in the course of a single play, not merely supplementing the one by means of the other as a bye or under-plot. In no respect is the progress of his technical skill as a dramatist more apparent,—an assertion which a comparison of plays clearly ascribable to successive periods of his life would satisfactorily establish.

Should it, however, be sought to express in one word the greatest debt of the drama to Shakespeare, this word must be the same as that which expresses his supreme gift as a dramatist. It is in characterization—in the drawing of characters ranging through almost every type of humanity which furnishes a fit subject for the tragic or the comic art—that he remains absolutely unapproached ; and it was in this direction that he pointed the way which the English drama could not henceforth desert without becoming untrue to itself. It may have been a mere error of judgment which afterwards held him to have been surpassed by others in particular fields of characterization (which, for-sooth, regarded him as supremely excellent in male but not in female characters). But it was a sure sign of decay when our writers began to shrink from following him in the endeavour to make the drama a mirror of humanity, and when, in self-condemned arrogance, they thrust un-reality back upon a stage which he had animated with the warm breath of life, where Juliet had blossomed like a flower of spring, and where Othello’s noble nature had suffered and sinned.

By the numerous body of poets who, contemporary with Shakespeare or in the next generation, cultivated the wide field of the national drama, every form commending itself to the tastes and sympathies of the national genius was essayed. None were neglected except those from which the spirit of English literature had been estranged by the Reformation, and those which had from the first been artificial importations of the Renaissance. The mystery could not here, as in Spain, produce such an aftergrowth as the auto, and the confines of the religious drama were only now and then tentatively touched.1 The direct imitations of the classical drama were few and feeble; Chapman, while affecting some of its usages, made no serious attempt to reproduce its essentials ; experiments like W. Alexander’s (afterwards Earl of Stirling) Monarchicke Tragedies2 (1603-1605) are the mere isolated efforts of a student, like Milton’s Samson Agonistes at a later date (1677). At the opposite end of the dramatic scale, the light gaiety of the Italian and French force could not establish itself on the English popular stage without more solid adjuncts ; the Englishman’s festive digestion is robust, and he likes his amusements substantial. In the pastoral drama and the mask, however, many of our dramatists found special opportunities for the exercise of their lyrical gifts and of their inventive powers. The former could never become other than an exotic, so long as it retained the artificial character of its origin. Shakespeare had accordingly only blended elements derived from it into the action of his romantic comedies. In more or less isolated works Jonson, Fletcher, Daniel, Randolph, and others sought to rival Tasso and Guarini—Jonson3 coming nearest to nationalizing an essentially foreign growth by the fresh simplicity of his treatment, Fletcher4 bearing away the palm for beauty of poetic execution. The mask was a more elastic kind of composition, mixing in varying proportions its constituent elements of declamation and dialogue, music and dancing, decoration and scenery. In its least elaborate literary form—which, of course, externally was the most elaborate— it closely approached the pageant; in other instances the distinctness of its characters or the fullness of the action introduced into its scheme, brought it nearer to the regular drama. A frequent ornament of Queen Elizabeth’s progresses, it was cultivated with increased assiduity in the reign of James I., and in that of his successor outshone, by the favour it enjoyed with court and nobility, the attractions of the regular drama itself. Most of the later Elizabethan dramatists contributed to this species, upon which Shakespeare only incidentally in the course of his dramas expended the resources of his fancy ; but by far the most successful writer of masks was Ben Jonson, of whose numerous compositions of this kind many hold a permanent place in our poetic literature, and "next" whom, in his own judgment, "only Fletcher and Chapman could write a mask." From a poetic point of view, however, they were at least rivalled by Dekker and Ford ; in productivity and favour T. Campion (d. 1623) seems for a time to have excelled. Inasmuch, however, as the history of the mask in England is to a great extent that of "painting and carpentry" and of Inigo Jones, it need not here be further pursued. The Microcosmus of T. Nabbes (printed 1637), which is very like a morality, seems to have been the first mask brought upon the public stage. It was the performance of a mask by Queen Henrietta Maria and her ladies at Whitehall which had some years previously (1632) been thought to have supplied to the invective of Histrio Mastix against the stage the occasion for disloyal innuendo; and it was for the performance of a mask in a great nobleman’s castle that a very different Puritan had not long afterwards (1634) composed one of the loftiest and loveliest of English poems. Comus has been judged and condemned as a drama,—unjustly, for the dramatic qualities of a mask are not essential to the species. Nor need its history in England have here been referred to, were it not so inseparably connected with that of the Elizabethan drama. In later times the mask merged into the opera, or continued a humble life of its own apart from contact with higher literary effort. It is strange that our later poets should have done so little to restore to its nobler uses, and to invest with a new significance, a form of so proved a flexibility as the poetic mask.





The annals of our drama proper in the period reaching from the closing years of Elizabeth to the outbreak of the great Revolution include, together with numerous names relatively insignificant, many illustrious in the history of our poetic literature. Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries and successors there is, however, but one who by the energy of his genius, not less than by the circumstances of his literary career, stands in a position of undisputed primacy among his fellows. Ben Jonson (1573-1635), to whom in his latter days a whole generation of younger writers did homage as to their veteran chief, was alone in full truth the founder of a school or family of dramatists. Yet his pre-eminence did not (whatever he or his followers may have thought) extend to both branches of the regular drama. In tragedy he fell short of the highest success; the weight of his learning lay too heavily upon his efforts to draw from deeper sources than those which had sufficed for Shakespeare. Such as they are, his tragic works1 stand almost, though not quite, alone in this period as examples of sustained effort in historic tragedy proper. G. Chapman (1557 or 1559-1634) treated stirring themes, more especially from modern French history,2 always with vigour, and at times with genuine effectiveness; but though rich in beauties of detail, he failed in this branch of the drama to follow Shakespeare even at a distance in the supreme art of fully developing a character by means of the action. Mention has already been made of Ford’s isolated effort in the direction of historic tragedy and of those excursions into the still popular domain of the chronicle history by T. Heywood, Dekker, and others, which are to be regarded as nothing more than retrogressions. With the great body of the English dramatists of this and of the next period, tragedy had passed into a phase where its interest depended mainly upon plot and incident. The romantic tragedies and tragi-comedies which fill our literature in this period constitute together a growth of at first sight astonishing exuberance, and in mere externals of theme—ranging from Byzantium to ancient Britain, and from the Caesars of ancient Rome to the tyrants of the Renaissance—of equally astonishing variety. The sources from which these subjects were derived had been constantly on the increase. Besides Italian, Spanish, and French fiction, original or translated, besides British legend in its Romance dress, and English fiction in its humbler or in its more ambitious and artificial forms, the contemporary foreign drama, especially the Spanish, offered opportunities for resort. To the English, as to the French and Italian drama, of both this and the following century, the prolific dramatists clustered round Lope de Vega and Calderon supplied a whole arsenal of plots, incidents, and situations—among others to Middleton, to Webster, and most signally to Beaumont and Fletcher. And in addition to these materials, a new field of resources was at hand since our dramatists had begun to regard events and episodes of English domestic life as fit subjects for tragic treatment. Domestic tragedy of this description was indeed no novelty on the English stage; Shakespeare himself may have touched, with his master-hand, more than one effort of this kind ;3 but T. Heywood (c. 1570-c. 1605) may be regarded as the first who achieved any work of considerable literary value of this class,4 to which some of the plays of T. Dekker (c. 1570-c. 1640), T. Middleton, and others likewise more or less belong. Yet in contrast to this wide variety of sources, and consequent apparent variety of themes, the number of motives employed at least as a rule—in the tragic drama of this period was comparatively small and limited. Hence it is that, notwithstanding the diversity of subjects among the tragic dramas of such writers as Marston, Webster, Fletcher, Ford, and Shirley, an impression of sameness is left upon us by a connected perusal of these works. Politic ambition, conjugal jealousy, absolute female devotion, unbridled masculine passion, such are the motives which constantly recur in the Decameron of our later Elizabethan drama. And this impression is heightened by the want of moderation, by the excess of passion, which these dramatists so habitually exhibit in the treatment of their favourite themes. All the tragic poets of this period are not equally amenable to this charge; in J. Webster5 (d. c. 1650), master as he is of the effects of the horrible, and in J. Ford6 (1586-c. 1640), surpassingly seductive in his sweetness, the monotony of exaggerated passion is broken by those marvellously sudden and subtle touches through which their tragic genius creates its most thrilling effects. Nor will the tendency to excess of passion which F. Beaumont (1586-1616) and J. Fletcher (1576-1625) undoubtedly exhibit be confounded with their distinctive power of sustaining tenderly pathetic characters and situations in a degree unequalled by any of their contemporaries—a power seconded by a beauty of diction and softness of versification which for a time raised them to the highest pinnacle of popularity, and which entitles them in their conjunction, and Fletcher as an independent worker, to an enduring pre-eminence among their fellows. In their morals Beaumont and Fletcher are not above the level of their age. The manliness of sentiment which ennobles the rhetorical genius of P. Massinger (1584-1640), and the gift of poetic illustration which entitles J. Shirley (1595-1666) to be remembered as something besides the latest and the most fertile of this group of dramatists, have less direct bearing upon the general character of the tragic art of the period. The common features of the romantic tragedy of this age are sufficiently marked, but not capable of obscuring the distinctive features in its individual writers which it is the highest function of criticism to discover and establish.

In comedy, on the other hand, the genius and the insight of Jonson pointed the way to a steady and legitimate advance. His theory of "humours" (which found the most palpable expression in two of his earliest plays7), if translated into the ordinary language of dramatic art, signifies the paramount importance in the comic drama of the creation of distinctive human types. In the actual creation of these it was impossible that Jonson should excel Shakespeare ; but in the consciousness with which he recognized and indicated the highest sphere of a comic dramatist’s labours, he rendered to the drama a direct service which Shakespeare had left unperformed. By the rest of his contemporaries and his successors, some of whom (such as Brome) were content avowedly to follow in his footsteps, Jonson was only occasionally rivalled in individual instances of comic creations; in the entirety of its achievements his genius as a comic dramatist remained unapproached. The favourite types of Jonsonian comedy, to which Dekker, J. Marston (1575-1624), and Chapman had, though to no large extent, added others of their own, were elaborated with incessant zeal and remarkable effect by their contemporaries and successors. It was after a very different fashion from that in which the Roman comedians reiterated the ordinary types of the New Attic comedy, that the inexhaustible verve of T. Middleton (1574—1624), the buoyant productivity of Fletcher, the observant humour of N. Field (c. 1590-c. 1640), and the artistic versatility of Shirley—not to mention many later and lesser names— mirrored in innumerable pictures of contemporary life the undying follies and foibles of mankind. As comedians of manners more than one of these surpassed the old master, not indeed in distinctness and correctness,—the fruits of the most painstaking genius that ever fitted a learned sock to the living realities of life,—but in a lightness which did not impair their sureness of touch; while in the construction of plots the access of abundant new materials, and the greater elasticity in treatment which is the result of accumulated experience, enabled them to maintain a steady progress. Thus our comic dramatic literature from Jonson to Shirley is unsurpassed as a comedy of manners, while as a comedy of character it at least defies comparison with any other national literary growth preceding or contemporaneous with it. Though the younger generation, of which W. Cartwright (1611 or 1615—1643) may be taken as an example, was unequal in originality or force to its predecessors, yet so little exhausted was the vitality of the species, that its traditions survived the interregnum of the Revolution, and connected themselves in some measure with later growths of English comedy.

The rivals against which in its closing period the old English drama had to contend have been already noticed. From the masks and triumphs at court and at the houses of the nobility, with their Olympuses and Parnassuses built by Inigo Jones, and filled with goddesses and nymphs clad in the gorgeous costumes designed by his inventive hand, to the city pageants and shows by land and water,—from the tilts and tournaments at Whitehall to the more philosophical devices at the Inns of Court and the academical plays at the universities,—down even to the brief but thrilling theatrical excitements of Bartholomew Fair and the "Ninevitical motions" of the puppets,—in all these ways the various sections of the theatrical public were tempted aside. Foreign performers—French and Spanish actors, and even French actresses—paid visits to London. But the national drama held its ground. The art of acting maintained itself at least on the level to which it had been brought by Shakespeare’s associates and contemporaries, Burbadge and Heminge, Alleyn, Lewin, Taylor, and others "of the older sort." The profession of actor came to be more generally than of old separated from that of playwright, though they were still (as in the case of Field) occasionally combined. But this rather led to an increased appreciation of artistic merit in actors who valued the dignity of their own profession and whose co-operation the authors learnt to esteem as of independent significance. The stage was purged from the barbarism of the old school of clowns. Women’s parts were still acted by boys, many of whom attained to considerable celebrity; and a practice was thus continued which placed the English theatre at a considerable disadvantage as compared with the Spanish (where it never obtained), and which probably to some extent reacted upon the licence of expression assumed by our dramatists. The arrangement of the stage, which facilitated a rapid succession of scenes without any necessity for their being organically connected with one another, remained essentially the same as in Shakespeare’s days, though the primitive expedients for indicating locality had begun to be occasionally exchanged for scenery more or less appropriate to the place of action. Costume was apparently cultivated with much greater care; and there is no reason to suppose that the English stage of this period had not gone as far as was expedient in a direction in which in feebler times so vast an amount of effort has come to be spent. The drama still depended in the main upon its literary essentials and upon the actor’s art; but the system of prologues and epilogues, and of dedications to published plays, was more uniformly employed than it had been by Shakespeare as the conventional method of recommending authors and actors to the favour of individual patrons, and to that of their chief patron, the public.

Up to the outbreak of the Civil War the drama in all its forms continued to enjoy the favour or good-will of the court, although a close supervision was exercised over all attempts to make the stage the vehicle of political references or allusions. The regular official agent of this supervision was the Master of the Revels ; but under James I. a special ordinance, in harmony with the king’s ideas concerning the dignity of the throne, was passed "against representing any modern Christian king in plays on the stage." The theatre could hardly expect to be allowed a liberty of speech in reference to matters of state denied to the public at large ; and occasional attempts to indulge in the freedom of criticism dear to the spirit of comedy met with more or less decisive repression and punishment.1 But the sympathies of the dramatists were so entirely on the side of the court, that the real difficulties against which the theatre had to contend came from a directly opposite quarter. With the growth of Puritanism the feeling of hostility to the stage increased in a large part of the population, well represented by the civic authorities of the capital. This hostility found many ways of expressing itself. The attempts to suppress the Blackfriars theatre (1619,1631,1633) proved abortive; but the representation of stage plays continued to be prohibited on Sundays, and during the prevalence of the plague in London in 1637 was temporarily suspended altogether. The desire of the Puritans of the more pronounced type openly aimed at a permanent closing of the theatres. The war between them and the dramatists was accordingly of a life-and-death kind. On the one hand, the drama heaped its bitterest and often coarsest attacks upon whatever savoured of the Puritan spirit; gibes, taunts, caricatures in ridicule and aspersion of Puritans and Puritanism make up a great part of the comic literature of the later Elizabethan drama and of its aftergrowth in the reigns of the first two Stuarts. This feeling of hostility, to which Shakespeare was no stranger,2 though he cannot be connected with the authorship of one of its earliest and coarsest expressions,3 rose into a spirit of open defiance in some of the masterpieces of Ben Jonson;4 and the comedies of his contemporaries and successors5 abound in caricatured reproductions of the more common or more extravagant types of Puritan life. On the other hand, the moral defects, the looseness of tone, the mockery of ties sanctioned by law and consecrated by religion, the tendency to treat middle-class life as the hunting-ground for the amusements of the upper classes, which degraded so much of the dramatic literature of the age, intensified the Puritan opposition to all and any stage plays. A patient endeavour to reform instead of suppressing the drama was not to be looked for from such adversaries, should they ever possess the means of carrying out their views; and so soon as Puritanism should victoriously assert itself in the state, the state was doomed. Among the attacks directed against it in its careless heyday of prosperity Prynne’s Histrio Mastix (1632), while it involved its author in shamefully cruel persecution, did not remain wholly without effect upon the tone of the dramatic literature of the subsequent period ; but the quarrel between Puritanism and the theatre was too old and too deep to end in any but one way, so soon as the latter was deprived of its protectors. The Civil War began in August 1642 ; and early in the following month was published the Ordinance of the Lords and Commons which, after a brief and solemn preamble, commanded "that while these sad causes and set-times of humiliation do continue, public stage plays shall cease and be forborne." Many actors and playwrights followed the fortunes of the royal cause in the field; some may have gone into a more or less voluntary exile; upon those who lingered on in the familiar haunts the hand of power lay heavy; and though there seems reason to believe that dramatic entertainments of one kinder another continued to be occasionally presented stringent ordinances gave summary powers to magistrates against any players found engaged in such proceedings (1647), and bade them treat all stage-players as rogues, and pull down all stage galleries, seats, and boxes (1648). A few dramatic works were published in this period ; while at fairs about the country were acted farces called "drolls," consisting of the most vulgar scenes to be found in popular plays. Thus, the life of the drama was not absolutely extinguished ; and its darkest day proved briefer than perhaps either its friends or its foes could have supposed.





Already "in Oliver’s time" private performances took place from time to time at noblemen's houses and (though not undisturbed) in the old haunt of the drama, the Red Bull. In 1656 the ingenuity of sir William Davenant (l606-1669), whose name, though not otherwise eminent in our dramatic literature, is memorable as connecting together two distinct periods in it, ventured on a bolder s step in the production of a quasi-dramatic entertainment "of declamation and music;" and in the following year he brought out with scenery and music a piece which was afterwards in an enlarged form acted and printed as the first part of his opera, The Siege of Rhodes. This entertainment he afterwards removed from the private house where it had been produced to the Cockpit, where he soon ventured upon the performance of regular plays written by himself. Thus, under the cover of two sister arts, whose aid was in the sequel to prove by no means altogether beneficial to its progress, the English drama had boldly anticipated the Restoration, and was no longer hiding its head when that much desired event was actually brought about. Soon after Charles II.’s entry into London, two theatrical companies are known to have been acting in the capital. For these companies patents were soon granted, under the names of "the Duke (of York)’s" and "the King’s Servants," to Davenant and one of the brothers Killigrew respectively,—the former from 1662 p acting at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then at Dorset Garden in Salisbury Court, the latter from 1663 at the Theatre Royal near Drury Lane. These companies were united from 1682, a royal licence being granted in 1695 to a rival company which performed in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and which migrated to Covent Garden in 1733. Meanwhile Vanbrugh had in 1705 built the theatre in the Haymarket ; and a theatre in Goodman’s Fields—afterwards rendered famous by the first appearance of Garrick—led a fitful existence from 1729 to 1733. The Act of 1737 deprived m the Crown of the power of licensing any more theatres ; so that the history of the English stage for a long period was confined to a limited area. The rule which prevailed after is the Restoration, that neither of the rival companies should ever attempt a play produced by the other, operated beneficially both upon the activity of dramatic authorship and upon the progress of the art of acting, which was not exposed to the full effects of that deplorable spirit of personal rivalry which leads actors, in order to outshine their fellows, to attempt parts for which they often have no special qualification. There can be little doubt that, the actors art has rarely flourished more in England than in the days of T. Betterton (1635-1710) and his contemporaries, among whose names those of Hart, Mohun, Kynaston, Nokes, Mrs Barry, Mrs Betterton, Mrs Bracegirdle, and Mrs Eleanor Gwynne have, together with many others, survived in various connections among the memories of the Restoration age. No higher praise has ever been given to an actor than that which Addison bestowed upon Betterton, in describing his performance of Othello as a proof that Shakespeare could not have written the most striking passages of the character otherwise than he has done.

It may here be noticed, that the fortunes of the Irish theatre in general followed those of the English, of which of course it was merely a branch. Of native, dramatic compositions in earlier times not a trace remains in Ireland, and the drama was introduced into that country as an English exotic—apparently already in the reign of Henry VIII., and more largely in that of Elizabeth. The first theatre in Dublin was built in 1635; but in 1641 it was closed, and even after the Restoration the Irish stage continued in a precarious condition till near the end of the century.

Already in the period preceding the outbreak of the civil war the English drama had perceptibly sunk from the height to which it had been raised by the great Elizabethans. When it had once more recovered possession of that arena with which no living drama can dispense, it would have been futile to demand that the dramatists should return altogether into the ancient paths, unaffected by the influences, native or foreign, in operation around them. But there was no reason why the new drama should not, like the Elizabethan, be true in spirit to the higher purposes of the dramatic art, to the nobler tendencies of the national life, and to the eternal demands of moral law. Because the later Stuart drama was as a whole untrue to these, and, while following its own courses, never more than partially returned from the aberrations to which it condemned itself, its history is that of a decay which the indisputable brilliancy, borrowed or original, of many of its productions is incapable of concealing.

Owing in part to the influence of the French theatre, which by this time had taken the place of the Spanish as the ruling drama of Europe, the separation between tragedy and comedy is clearly marked incur post-Restoration plays. Comic scenes are still occasionally introduced into tragedies by some of our dramatists who adhered more closely to the Elizabethan models (such as Otway and Crowne), but the practice fell into disuse ; while the endeavour to elevate comedy by pathetic scenes and motives is one of the char-acteristic marks of the beginning of another period in our dramatic literature. The successive phases through which English tragedy passed in the later Stuart times cannot be always kept distinct from one another ; and the guidance offered by the theories put forth by some of the dramatists in support of their practice is often delusive. Following the example of Corneille, Dryden and his contemporaries and successors were fond of proclaiming their adherence to this or that principle of dramatic construction or form, and of upholding, with much show of dialectical acumen, maxims derived by them from French or other sources, or elaborated with modifications and variations of their own, but usually amounting to little more than what Scott calls "certain romantic whimsical imitations of the dramatic art." The student of the drama will find much both to entertain and to instruct him in these prefaces, apologies, dialogues, and treatises; he will acknowledge that Dryden’s incomparable vigour does not desert him either in the exposing or in the upholding of fallacies; and that even Rymer,1 usually regarded as having touched the nadir of dramatic criticism, is not wholly without grains of salt. But Restoration tragedy itself must not be studied by the light of Restoration criticism. So long as any dramatic power remained in our tragic poets—and it is absent from none of the chief among them from Dryden to Rowe—the struggle between fashion (disguised as theory) and instinct (tending in the direction of the Elizabethan traditions) could never wholly determine itself in favour of the former.

Lord Orrery (1621-1679), in deference, as he declares, to the expressed tastes of his sovereign King Charles II. himself, was the first to set up the standard of heroic plays. This new species of tragedy (for such it professed to be) commended itself by its novel choice of themes, to a large extent supplied by recent French romance—the romans de longue haleine of the Scudérys and their contemporaries— and by French plays treating similar themes. It likewise borrowed from France that garb of rhyme which the English drama had so long abandoned, and which now reappeared in the heroic couplet. But the themes which to readers of novels might seem of their nature inexhaustible could not long suffice to satisfy the more capricious appetite of theatrical audiences; and the form, in the application it was sought to enforce for it, was doomed to remain an exotic. In conjunction with his brother-in-law Sir R. Howard (1626-1698),2 and afterwards more confidently by himself,3 Dryden (1631-1699) threw the incomparable vigour and brilliancy of his genius into the scale, which soon rose to the full height of fashionable popularity. At first he claimed for English tragedy the right to combine her native inheritance of freedom with these valuable foreign acquisitions.4 Nor was he dismayed by the ridicule which the celebrated burlesque (by the duke of Buckingham and others) of The Rehearsal (1671) cast upon heroic plays, without discriminating between them and such other materials for ridicule as the contemporary drama supplied to its facetious authors, but returned to the defence of a species 5 which he was himself in the end to abandon. The desire for change proved stronger than the love of consistency—which in Dryden was never more than theoretical. After summoning tragedy to rival the freedom (without disdaining the machinery) of opera, he came to recognize in characterization the truest secret of the master-spirit of the Elizabethan drama, 6 and, after audaciously but not altogether unhappily essaying to rival Shakespeare on his own ground, 7 produced under the influence of the same views at least one work of striking merit. 8 But he was already growing weary of the stage itself as well as of the rhymed heroic drama, and though he put an end to the species to which he had given temporary vitality, he failed effectively to point the way to a more legitimate development of English tragedy. Among the other tragic poets of this period, N. Lee (1650-1690), in the outward form of his dramas, accommodated his practice to that of Dryden, with whom he occasionally co-operated as a dramatist, and like whom he allowed political partisanship to intrude upon the stage. His rhetorical genius was not devoid of genuine energy, nor is he to be regarded as a mere imitator. T. Otway (1651-1695), the most gifted tragic poet of the younger generation contemporary with Dryden, inherited something of the spirit of the Elizabethan drama; he possessed a real gift of tragic pathos and of expressive tenderness; but his genius had an alloy of impurity, and though he was often happy in his novel choice of themes, his efforts were as incomplete as his end was premature. T. Southerne (1660-1746) was likewise possessed of pathetic power ; but his success was primarily due to his skill in the choice of "sensational" plots ;9 J. Crowne (d. c. 1703), Lord Lansdowne ("Granville the polite") (c. 1667-1735), Congreve, by virtue of a single long celebrated but not really remarkable tragedy, 10 and N. Rowe (1673-1718) may be further singled out from the list of the tragic dramatists of this period, many of whom were, like their comic contemporaries, mere translators or adapters from the French. The tragedies of Rowe, whose direct services to the study of Shakespeare are not to be forgotten, indicate with singular distinctness the transition from the fuller declamatory style of Dryden to the calmer and thinner manner of Addison. In tragedy (as to a more marked degree in comedy) the excesses (both of style and subject) of the past period of the English drama had produced an inevitable reaction; decorum was asserting its claims on the stage as in society; and French tragedy had set the example of sacrificing what passion—and what vigour—it retained in favour of qualities more acceptable to the "reformed" court of Louis XIV. Addison (1672-1719), in allowing his Cato to take its chance upon the stage, when a moment of political excitement (April 1713) ensured it an extraordinary success, to which no feature in it corresponds, except an unusual number of lines predestined to become familiar quotations, sealed the doom of English national tragedy. The "first reasonable English tragedy," as Voltaire called it, had been produced, and the oscillations of the tragic drama of the Restoration were at an end.

English comedy in this period displayed no similar desire to cut itself off from the native soil, though it freely borrowed the materials for its plots and many of its figures from Spanish, and afterwards more generally from French, originals. The spirit of the old romantic comedy had long since fled; the graceful artificialities of the pastoral drama, even the light texture of the mask, ill suited the demands of an age which made no secret to itself of the grossness of its sensuality. With a few unimportant exceptions, such poetic elements as admitted of being combined with the poetic drama were absorbed by the opera and the ballet. No new species of the comic drama formed itself, though towards the close of the period may be noticed the beginnings of modem English farce. Political and religious partisanship, generally in accordance with the dominant reaction against Puritanism, were allowed to find expression in the directest and coarsest forms upon the stage, and to hasten the necessity for a more systematic control than even the times before the Revolution had found requisite. At the same time the unblushing indecency which the Restoration had spread through court and capital had established its dominion over the comic stage, corrupting the manners, and with them the morals, of its dramatists, and forbidding them, at the risk of seeming dull, to be anything but improper. Much of this found its way even into the epilogues, which, together with the prologues, proved so important an adjunct of the Restoration drama. These influences determine the general character of what is with a more than chronological meaning termed the comedy of the Restoration. In construction, the national love of fulness and solidity of dramatic treatment induced its authors to alter what they borrowed from foreign sources, adding to complicated Spanish plots characters of native English directness, and supplementing single French plots by the addition of others. At the same time the higher efforts of French comedy of character, as well as the refinement of expression in the list of their models, notably in Molière, were alike seasoned to suit the coarser appetites and grosser palates of English patrons. The English comic writers often succeeded in strengthening the borrowed texture of their plays, but they never added comic humour without at the same time adding coarseness of their own. Such were the productions of Sir George Etherege (c. 1636-c. 1694), Sir Charles Sedley (c. 1639-c. 1728), and the other "gentlemen who wrote at ease;" nor was there any signal difference between their productions and those of a playwright-actor, such as J. Lacy (d. 1681), and a professional dramatist of undoubted ability, such as J. Crowne. Such, though often displaying the brilliancy of a genius which even where it sank could never wholly abandon its prerogative, were, it must be confessed, the comedies of Dryden himself. On the other hand, the lowest literary deeps of the Restoration drama were sounded by T. D’Urfey (1630-1723), while of its moral degradation the "divine Astraea," the "unspeakable" Mrs Aphra Behn (1642-1689) has an indefeasible title to be considered the most faithful representative. T. Shadwell (1640-1692), fated like the tragic poet Elkanah Settle (1648-1724), to be chiefly remembered as a victim of Dryden’s satire, deserves more honourable mention. Like J. Wilson (d. 1690), whose plays seem to class him with the pre-Restoration dramatists, Shadwell had caught something not only of the art, but also of the spirit, of Ben Jonson; but in most of his works he was, like the rest of his earlier contemporaries, and like the brilliant group which succeeded them, content to take his moral tone from the reckless society for which, or in deference to the tastes of which, he wrote. The absence of a moral sense, which, together with a grossness of expression often defying exaggeration, characterizes our comic dramatists from the days of Dryden to those of Congreve, is the main cause of their failure to satisfy the demands which are legitimately to be made upon their art. They essayed to draw character as well as to paint manners, but they rarely proved equal to the former and higher task; and while choosing the means which most readily commended their plays to the favour of their immediate public, they achieved bat little as interpreters of those essential distinctions which their art is capable of illustrating. Within these limits, though occasionally passing beyond them, and always with the same deference to the immoral tone which seemed to have become an indispensable adjunct of the comic style, even the greatest comic authors of this age moved. W. Wycherley (1640-1715) was a comic dramatist of real power, who drew his characters with vigour and distinctness, and constructed his plots and chose his language with natural ease. He lacks gaiety of spirit, and his wit is of a cynical turn. But while he ruthlessly uncloaks the vices of his age, his own moral tone is affected by their influence m as marked a degree as that of the most light-hearted of his contemporaries. The most brilliant of these was indisputably W. Congreve (1672-1728), who is not only one of the very wittiest of English writers, but equally excels in the graceful ease of his dialogue, and draws his characters and constructs his plots with the same masterly skill. His chief fault as a dramatist is one of excess—the brilliancy of the dialogue, whoever be the speaker, overpowers the distinction between the "humours" of his personages. Though he is less brutal in expression than "manly" Wycherley, and less coarse than the lively Sir J. Vanbrugh (c. 1666-1726), licentiousness in him as in them corrupts the spirit of his comic art; but of his best though not most successful play1 it must be allowed that the issue of the main plot is on the side of virtue. G. Farquhar (1678-1707), whose morality is on a par with that of the other members of this group, is inferior to them in brilliancy; but as pictures of manners in a wider sphere of life than that which contemporary comedy usually chose to illustrate, two of his plays deserve to be noticed in which we already seem to be entering the atmosphere of the 18th century novel.2

The improvement which now begins to manifest itself in the moral tone and spirit of English comedy is partly due to the reaction against the reaction of the Restoration, partly to the punishment which the excesses of the comic stage had brought upon it in the invective of Jeremy Collier 3 (1698), of all the assaults the theatre in England has had to undergo the best-founded, and that which produced the most perceptible results. The comic poets, who had always been more or less conscious of their sins, and had at all events not defended them by the ingenious sophistries which it has pleased later literary criticism to suggest on their behalf, now began with uneasy merriment to allude in their prologues to the reformation which had come over the spirit of the town. Writers like Mrs Centlivre (c. 1678-1722) became anxious to reclaim their offenders with much emphasis in the fifth act; and Colley Cibber (1671-1757)—whose Apology for his Life furnishes a useful view of this and the subsequent period of the history of the stage, with which he was connected as author, manager, and actor (excelling in this capacity as representative of those fools with which he peopled the comic staged—may be credited with the moral intention he claims to have kept in view throughout his career as a dramatist. Sir R. Steele (1671-1729), in accordance with his general tendencies as a writer, pursued a still more definite moral purpose in his comedies; but his genius perhaps lacked the sustained vigour necessary for a dramatist, and his humour naturally sought the aid of pathos. Accordingly, taking a hint from Colley Gibber, who so well understood the public taste, Steele, passing from partial5 to more complete6 experiment, became the founder of that sentimental comedy which exercised so depressing an influence upon the progress of our drama. Thus the two writers whose associated efforts so largely contributed to open a new and productive vein in our literature, both signally helped to hasten the decline of its dramatic branch. With Cato English tragedy committed suicide, though its pale ghost survived; with The Conscious Lovers English comedy sank into the tearful embrace of artificiality and weakness, from which it has never again altogether torn itself away.

It seems superfluous within the limits of a summary like the present to attempt to classify with any degree of minuteness the remaining phenomena in the history of our m dramatic literature. During the 18th century its productions were still as a rule legitimately designed to meet the demands of the stage, from which its higher efforts afterwards to so large an extent became dissociated. But the demands of the stage and those of its patrons and of the public of the "Augustan" age, and of that which succeeded it, in general were fast bound by the trammels of a taste with which a revival of the poetic drama remained irreconcilable during a long period of our literature. There is every reason to conclude that the art of acting progressed in the same direction of artificiality, and stiffened into apparently immutable forms in such actors as Macklin and Quin. The genius of Garrick, whose theatrical career extended from 1741 to 1776, opened a new era in his art. His unparalleled success was due in the first instance to his incomparable natural gifts; but these were indisputably enhanced by a careful and continued literary training, and ennobled by a purpose which prompted him to essay the noblest, as he was capable of performing the most various, range of English theatrical characters. By devoting himself as actor and manager with special zeal to the production of Shakespeare, Garrick permanently popularized on the national stage the greatest creations of our drama, and indirectly helped to seal the doom of the surviving tendency to maintain in the most ambitious walks of our dramatic literature the nerveless traditions of the pseudo-classical school. A generation of celebrated actors and actresses, many of whom live for us in the drastic epigrams of Churchill’s Rosciad (1761), were his helpmates or his rivals ; but their fame has paled, while his is destined to endure as that of one of the typical masters of his art.

The contrast between the tragedy of the 18th century and those plays of Shakespeare and one or two other Elizabethans which already before Garrick were known to the English stage, was indeed weakened by the mutilated form in which these generally, if not always, made their appearance there. Even so, however, there are perhaps few instances in theatrical history in which so strange a competition was so long sustained. In the hands of the tragic poets of the age of Pope, as well as of that of Johnson, tragedy had hopelessly stiffened into the forms of its accepted French models. Direct reproductions of these continued, as in the case of Ambrose Philips’s (c. 1671-1749) and Charles Johnson’s (1679-1748) translations from Racine, and Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) from Voltaire. Among other tragic dramatists of the earlier part of the century may be mentioned J. Hughes (1677-1720), who, after assisting Addison in his Cato, produced at least one praiseworthy tragedy of his own ;1 E. Fenton (1683-1730), a joint translator of "Pope’s Homer" and the author of one extremely successful drama ;2 and L. Theobald (d. 1744), the first hero of the Dunciad, who, besides translations of Greek dramas, produced a few more or less original plays, one of which he was daring enough to father upon Shakespeare. 3 A more distinguished name is that of J. Thomson (1700-1748), whose unlucky Sophonisba and subsequent tragedies are, however, barely remembered by the side of his poems. The literary genius of E. Young (1681-1765), on the other hand, possessed vigour and variety enough to distinguish his tragedies from the ordinary level of Augustan plays ; in one of them he seems to challenge comparison in the treatment of his theme with a very different rival ;4 but by his main characteristics as a dramatist he belongs to the school of his contemporaries. The endeavours of G. Lillo (1693-1739) to bring the lessons of tragedy home to his fellow-citizens were destined to exercise a powerful influence upon the early progress of the German drama, and not to remain without significance for the history of our own ; but his pedestrian muse failed in the end to satisfy higher artistic demands than those met in his most popular play, 5 and broke down in the attempt to carry the terrors of Macbeth into the regions of domestic tragedy. 6 "Classical" tragedy in the generation of Johnson pursued the even tenor of its way, the dictator himself treading with solemn footfall in the accustomed path 7, and Mason (1725-1797) making the futile attempt to produce a close imitation of Greek models. The best-remembered tragedy of the century, Home’s Douglas (1757), was the production of an author whose famous kinsman, David Hume, had advised him "to read Shakespeare, but to get Racine and Voltaire by heart." The indisputable merits of the play cannot blind us to the fact that Douglas is the child of Merope.

While thus no high creative talent arose to revive the poetic genius of English tragedy, comedy, which had to contend against the same rivals, naturally met the demands of the conflict with greater buoyancy. The history of the most formidable of those rivals forms no part of this sketch (see MUSIC); but the points of contact between its progress and the history of our dramatic literature cannot be altogether left out of sight. H. Purcell’s (1658-1695) endeavours to unite English music to the words of English poets were now a thing of the past; the isolated efforts of Addison8 and others to recover the operatic stage for the native tongue had proved powerless. Italian texts, which had first made their entrance piecemeal, in the end asserted themselves in their entirety ; and the German genius of Handel completed the triumphs of a form of art which no longer had any connection with the English drama, and which reached the height of its fashionable popularity about the time when Garrick began to adorn the national stage. In one form, however, the English opera was preserved as a pleasing species of the popular drama. The pastoral drama had (in 1735) produced an isolated aftergrowth in Allan Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd, which, with genuine freshness and humour, but without a trace of burlesque, transferred to the scenery of the Pentland Hills the lovely tale of Florizel and Perdita. The dramatic form of this poem is only an accident, but it doubtless suggested an experiment of a different kind to the most playful of London wits. Gay’s "Newgate Pastoral" of The Beggar’s Opera (1728), in which the amusing text of a burlesque farce was interspersed with songs set to popular airs, caught the fancy of the town by this novel combination, and became the ancestor of a series of agreeable productions, none of which, however, have ever rivalled it in celebrity. Among these the pieces of J. Bickerstaff 9 (c. 1735-c. 1788) and of C. Dibdin 10 (1745-1814) may be signalized. The opera in England as elsewhere thus absorbed what vitality remained to the pastoral drama, while to the ballet and the pantomime (whose glories in England began at Covent Garden in 1733, and to whose popularity even Garrick was obliged to defer) was left (in the 18th century at all events) the inheritance of the external attractions of the mask and the pageant.

In the face of such various rivalries it is not strange that comedy, instead of adhering to the narrow path which Steele and others had marked out for her, should have permitted herself some vagaries of her own. Gay’s example pointed the way to a fatally facile form of the comic art; and burlesque began to contribute its influence to the decline of comedy. In an age when party-government was severely straining the capabilities of its system, dramatic satire had not far to look for a source of effective seasonings. The audacity of H. Fielding (1707-1754), whose regular comedies (original or adapted) have secured no enduring remembrance, but whose love of parody was afterwards to suggest to him the theme of the first of the novels which have made his name immortal, accordingly ventured in two extravaganzas 1 (so we should call them in these days) upon a larger admixture of political with literary and other satire. A third attempt 2 (which never reached the stage) furnished the offended minister, Sir Robert Walpole, with the desired occasion for placing a curb upon the licence of the theatre, such as had already been advocated by a representative of its old civic adversaries. The famous Act of 1737 asserted no new principle, but converted into legal power the customary authority hither exercised by the Lord Chamberlain (to whom it had descended from the Master of the Revels). The regular censorship which this Act established has not appreciably affected the literary progress of the English drama, and the objections which have been raised against it seem on candid consideration untenable. The liberty of the stage is a question differing in its conditions from that of the liberty of speech in general, or even from that of the liberty of the press; and occasional lapses of official judgment weigh lightly in the balance against the obvious advantages of a system which in a free country needs only the vigilance of public opinion to present its abuse. The policy of the restraint which the Act of 1737 put upon the number of playhouses is a different, but has long become an obsolete, question.

Brought back into its accustomed grooves, English comedy seemed inclined to leave to farce the domain of healthy ridicule, and to coalesce with domestic tragedy in the attempt to make the stage a vehicle of homespun didactic morality. Farce had now become a genuine English species, and has as such retained its vitality through all the subsequent fortunes of the stage; it was actively cultivated by Garrick as both actor and author, but the very best farce of this age is ascribed to clerical authorship. 3 S. Foote (1720-1761), whose comedies 4 and farces are distinguished both by wit and by variety of characters (though it was an absurd misapplication of a great name to call him the English Aristophanes), introduced into comic acting the abuse of personal mimicry, for the exhibition of which he ingeniously invented a series of entertainments, the parents of a long progeny of imitations. Meanwhile the domestic drama of the sentimental kind had achieved its greatest success in The Gamester of E. Moore (d. 1757) ; and sentimental comedy courted sympathetic applause in the works of A. Murphy (1727-1801), the single comedy of W. Whitehead 5 (1714-1785), and the earliest of H. Kelly 6 (1714-1785). It cannot be said that this species was extinguished, as it is sometimes assumed to have been, by O. Goldsmith (1728-1774); but his admirable character-comedy of The Good-Natured Man, and his delightfully brisk and fresh She Stoops to Conquer, after startling critical propriety from its self-conceit, taught comedy no longer to fear being true to herself. The most successful efforts of the elder G. Colman (1733-1794) 7 had in them something of the spirit of genuine comedy, besides a finish which, however playwrights may shut their eyes to the fact, is one of the qualities which ensure a long life to a play. And in the masterpieces of R. B. Sheridan (c. 1752-1816) some of the happiest features of the comedy of Congreve were revived, together with its too uniform brilliancy of dialogue, but without its indecency of tone. The varnish of the age is indeed upon the style, and the hollowness of its morality in much of the sentiment (even where that sentiment is meant for the audience) of The Rivals and The School for Scandal; but in tact of construction, in distinctness of characters, and in pungency of social satire, they are to be ranked among the glories of English comedy. Something in Sheridan’s style, but quite without his brilliancy, is the most successful plays of the unfortunate General Burgoyne (d. 1792). R. Cumberland (1732-1811), who too consciously endeavoured to excel both in sentimental morality and in comic characterization, in which he was devoid of depth, closes the list of authors of higher pretensions who wrote for the theatre. Like him, Mrs Cowley 9 ("Anna Matilda") (1743-1809), T. Holcroft 10 (1744-1809), and G. Colman the younger 11 (1762-1836), all writers of popular comedies, as well as the prolific J. O’Keefe (1746-1833), who contributed to nearly every species of the comic drama, survived into our century. To an earlier date belong the favourite burlesques of O’Keefe’s countryman K. O’Hara 12 (d. 1782), good examples of a species the further history of which may be left aside. In the hands of at least one living writer, J. R. Planché, it has proved capable of satisfying a more refined taste than his successors have habitually consulted.

The decline of dramatic composition of the higher class, perceptible in the history of the English theatre about the beginning of the 19th century, is attributed by Scott to the wearing out of the French model that had been so long wrought upon ; while, as he points out, the new impulse which was sought in the dramatic literature of Germany was derived from some of its worst, instead of from its noblest, productions—from Kotzebue rather than from Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe. But the change which was coming over English literature was in truth of a wider and deeper nature than it was possible for even one of its chief representatives to perceive. As that literature freed itself from the fetters so long worn by it as indispensable ornaments, and threw aside the veil which had so long obscured both the full glory of its past and the lofty capabilities of its future, it could not resort except tentatively to a form which like the dramatic is bound by a hundred bonds to the life of the age itself. Soon, the poems with which Scott and Byron, and the unrivalled prose fictions with which Scott both satisfied and stimulated the imaginative demands of the public, diverted the attention of the cultivated classes from dramatic literature, which was unable to escape, with the light foot of verse or prose fiction, into "the new, the romantic land." New themes, new ideas, new forms occupied a new generation of writers and readers; nor did the drama readily lend itself as a vessel into which to pour so many fermenting elements. In Byron (1788-1824) the impressions produced upon a mind not less open to impulses from without than subjective in its way of recasting them, called forth a series of dramatic attempts betraying a more or less wilful ignorance of the demands of dramatic compositions; his beautiful Manfred, partly suggested by Goethe’s Faust, and his powerful Gain, have but the form of plays; his tragedies on Italian historical subjects show some resemblance in their political rhetoric to the contemporary works of Alfieri; his Werner is a hastily-dramatized sensation novel To Coleridge (1772-1834), who gave to English literature a fine though inaccurate translation of Schiller’s Wallenstein, the same poet’s Robbers (to which Wordsworth’s only dramatic attempt, the Borderers, is likewise indebted) had probably suggested the subject of his tragedy of Osorio, afterwards acted under the title of Remorse. Far superior to this is his later drama of Zapolya, a genuine homage to Shakespeare, out of the themes of two of whose plays it is gracefully woven. Scott, who in his earlier days had translated Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen, gained no reputation by his own dramatic compositions. W. S. Landor (1775-1864), apart from those Imaginary Conversations upon which he best loved to expend powers of observation and characterization such as have been given to few dramatists, cast in a formally dramatic mould studies of character of which the value is far from being confined to their wealth in beauties of detail. Of these the magnificent, but in construction altogether undramatic, Count Julian is the most noteworthy. Shelley’s (1792-1822) The Cenci, on the other hand, is not only a poem of great beauty, but a drama of true power, abnormally revolting in its theme, but singularly pure and delicate in treatment. A humbler niche in the temple of our dramatic literature belongs to some of the plays of C. R. Maturin 1 (1782-1824), Sir T. N. Talfourd 2 (1795-1854), and Dean Milman 2 (1791-1868). Divorced, except for moments, from the stage, English dramatic literature in its higher forms can in the present century no longer be regarded as a connected national growth, though it would be rash to deny that with the isolated efforts of individual poets future developments may connect themselves. Among living poets Sir H. Taylor has perhaps approached nearest to the objective spirit and the fullness of style of the Elizabethan drama ; R. H. Home survives as a worthy representative of the modern Romantic school ; Matthew Arnold has the dignity of form of his classic models, Longfellow the graceful facility of a mellow literary culture ; while R. Browning’s insight into the secrets of human character, and A. C. Swinburne’s gift of passionate poetic speech, are true dramatic qualities. By his Hannibal J. Nichol has likewise made a noteworthy contribution to the higher literature of our drama. The latest English dramatic poet is Tennyson, whose homage to the national form of the historic drama may be hopefully interpreted as a promise of the future possibly awaiting it. Far greater is the number of those English writers of the present century who, while seeking to preserve a connection between the demands of the stage and their dramatic productions, have addressed themselves to the theatrical rather than the literary public—since such a distinction must needs be drawn. The respect paid by her contemporaries to the modestly simple and judiciously concentrated efforts of Mrs Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) entitles her to remembrance in the annals of literature as well as those of the stage; but it would be going too far to make a similar exception in favour of the plays of Sheridan Knowles (1784-1862) or of the late Lord Lytton (1806-1873). At the present day the theatre commands the services of many authors of talent, a few of whose most successful productions may peradventure be destined to survive the age which gave birth to them. But here, if anywhere, the task of selection must be left to time.

The history of the English stage in the present century has been one of gradual decline and decay, not (especially at the present day) without prospects of recovery, of which a praiseworthy hopefulness is ever willing to make the most. At the beginning of the century the greatest tragic actress of the English theatre, Mrs Siddons, had passed her prime ; and before its second decade had closed, not only she (1812), but her brother John Kemble (1817), the representative of a grand style of acting upon which the present generation would hardly dare to look, had withdrawn from the boards. Mrs Siddons was soon followed into retirement by her successor Miss O’Neill (1819) ; while Kemble’s brilliant later rival, Edmund Kean, an actor the intuitions of whose genius seem to have supplied, so far as intuition ever can supply, the absence of a steady self-culture, remained on the stage till his death in 1833. Young, Macready, and others handed down some of the traditions of the older school of acting to the very few who remain to suggest its semblance to the living generation. But even these—among whom a tribute of gratitude is specially due to Helen Faucit and S. Phelps—are now lost (or all but lost) as active members to the theatre, and they have left no school behind them. The comic stage has been fortunate in an ampler aftergrowth, from generation to generation, of the successors of the old actors who live for us in the reminiscences of Charles Lamb; nor are the links all snapped which bind the humours of the present to those of the past. It is least of all in any spirit of depreciation that the efforts of the actors of our day, in any branch of the art, should be discussed. But it is right to point out that these efforts are carried on under conditions of a partly novel character, to which the actors are forced to submit. No art stands in greater need of the help of training,—an advantage with which the modem English actor is virtually obliged to dispense. No art stands in greater need of the relief of change in the subjects of its exercise,—but the modern English actor is made to look forward, as to the height of success, to playing the same character for three hundred nights. No art stands in greater need of the guidance of criticism,—but the modem English actor is too often left to criticise himself. Finally, none stands in greater need of the protection of self-respect,—but there are few theatres in England which are not from time to time degraded in deference to tastes which in earlier days not Puritan censors only would have called by a simpler name.

The reaction against the theatre, which set in with the spread of the religious movement at the close of the last century, had the natural effect of lowering instead of raising its tone and manners, as well as those of the literature designed to supply its immediate demands. With the growth of that enlightenment which is inseparable from tolerance, this reaction seems to be giving place to a counter-reaction ; while on the other hand, a larger section of the educated classes have begun to take an interest in the progress of the national drama, and the world of fashion is condescending to follow the impulse. Dramatic criticism, too—a branch of English literature to which from the days of Steele to those of Hazlitt so many writers of mark were ready to devote their efforts, but which had more recently often fallen into hands either unequal to the task or disdainful of it—seems here and there awakening to a sense of its higher duties. But all this will not permanently recover the stage for its higher tasks, or reunite to it a living dramatic literature, unless an object of serious moment for the future of the nation is pursued in a serious spirit, and unless it is thought worth while to devise means suited to this end. In a word, so long as there is no national theatre which, removed above the conditions of a commercial speculation, can cultivate the art to which it is dedicated for the sake of that art itself, the future of the English drama will be at the mercy of the likings of London, and of the adoption of those likings by the London which is not London, and by the "provinces," as in theatrical matters they are only too appropriately called. The time may come when it will be recognized that the progress and culture of a people depend upon its diversions as well as upon its occupations ; and that the interests of a national art are not unworthy the solicitude of thoughtful statesmen.



Footnotes

FOOTNOTES (428)

(1) Thebaïs.

(2) Misogonus.

(3) The History of the Collier.

(4) The Supposes.

(5) A Historic of Error (?), 1577; The Menaechmi taken out of Plautus (pr. 1595).


FOOTNOTES (page 429)

(1) The Woman in the Moone; Sapho and Phao.

(2) Alexander, Campaspe, and Diogenes.

(3) Endimion: Mydas.

(4) Gallathea.

(5) Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.

(6) Patient Grissil (with Dekker and Haughton).

(7) Hoffman, or A Revenge for a Father.


FOOTNOTES (page 430)

(1) Henry VIII.

(2) Ford, Perkin Warbeck.

(3) Edward IV.; If You Know Not Me, &c.

(4) Henry VIII.

(5) The Merry Wives of Windsor.


FOOTNOTES (page 431)

(1) Massinger, The Virgin Martyr; Shirley, St Patrick for Ireland.

(2) Darius; Craesus; Julius Caesar; The Alexandraean Tragedy.

(3) The Sad Shepherd.

(4) The Faithful Shepherdess.


FOOTNOTES (page 432)

(1) Sejanus his Fall; Catiline his Conspiracy.

(2) Bussy d’ Ambois; The Revenge of B. d’ A.; The Conspiracy of Byron; The Tragedy of B.: Chabot, Admiral of France (with Shirley).

(3) Arden of Faversham; A Yorkshire Tragedy.

(4) Woman killed with Kindness.

(5) Vittoria Coromboni; The Duchess of Malfi.

(6) ‘Tis Pity She ‘s a Whore; The Broken Heart.

(7) Every Man in his Humour; Every Man out of his Humour.


FOOTNOTES (page 433)

(1) Chapman, Marston (and Jonson), Eastward Hoe (1605); Middleton, A Game at Chess (1624); Shirley and Chapman, The Ball (1632); Massinger (?), The Spanish Viceroy (1634).

(2) Twelfth Night.

(3) The Puritan, or The Widow of Watling Street, by "W. S." (Wentworth Smith ?)

(4) The Alchemist ; Bartholomew Fair.

(5) Chapman, An Humorous Day’s Mirth; Marston, The Dutch Courtesan; Middleton, The Family of Love.


FOOTNOTES (page 435)

(1) A Short View of Tragedy (1693).

(2) The Indian Queen.

(3) The Indian Emperor; Tyrannic Love; The Conquest of Granada.

(4) Essay of Dramatic Poesy.

(5) Essay of Heroic Plays.

(6) The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy.

(7) All for Love (Antony and Cleopatra).

(8) Don Sebastian.

(9) Oroonoko; The Fatal Marriage.

(10) The Mourning Bride.


FOOTNOTES (page 436)

(1) The Double Dealer.

(2) The Recruiting Officer; The Beaux’ Stratagem.

(3) A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage.

(4) Sir Novelty Fashion (Lord Foppington), &c.

(5) The Lying Lover; The Tender Husband.

(6) The Conscious Lovers.


FOOTNOTES (page 437)

(1) The Siege of Damascus.

(2) Mariamne.

(3) The Double Falsehood.

(4) The Revenge (Othello).

(5) George Barnwell.

(6) The Fatal Curiosity (Act iii.).

(7) Irene (1749).

(8) Rosamunda.

(9) Low in a Village, &c.

(10) The Waterman, &c.


FOOTNOTES (page 438)

(1) Pasquin; The Historical Register for 1736.

(2) The Golden Rump.

(3) Townley, High Life Below Stairs (1759).

(4) The Minor; Taste; The Author, &c.

(5) The School for Lovers.

(6) False Delicacy.

(7) The Jealous Wife; The Clandestine Marriage.

(8) The Heiress.

(9) The Belle’s Stratagem; A Bold Stroke for a Husband, &c.

(10) The Road to Ruin, &c.

(11) John, Bull; The Heir at Law &c.

(12) Midas; The Golden Pippin.


FOOTNOTES (page 439)

(1) Bertram.

(2) Ion.

(3) Fazio.



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