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Vice always found a sympathetic friend; • They pleas'd their age, and did not aim to mend : Yet bards like these aspir'd to lasting praise,
And proudly hop'd to pimp in future days. · Their cause was general, their supports were strong; · Their Naves were willing, and their reign was long ; 'Till Shame regain’d the post that Sense betray’d, And Virtue call'd Oblivion to her aid.
Then crush'd by rules, and weaken’d as refin'd, 'For years the pow'r of tragedy declin'd;
From bard to bard the frigid caution crept, « Till declamation roar'd, whilst passion Nept; · Yet still did Virtue deign the stage to tread,
Philosophy remain’d, though Nature Aed.
Exulting Folly hail'd the joyous day,
* But who the coming changes can presage, * And mark the future periods of the stage ?
Perhaps, if skill could distant times explore, • New Behns, new Durfeys, yet remain in store ;
Perhaps, where Lear has ray'd, and Hamlet dy'd, • On flying cars new sorcerers may ride ; * Perhaps (for who can guess the effects of chance?) Here Hunt may box, or Mahomet may
* A rope-dancer, a real or pretended Turk, that exhibited on Covent-garden stage a winter or two before.
« Ah ! let not censure term our fate our choice,
· Then prompt no more the follies you decry, • As tyrants doom their tools of guilt to die; < 'Tis your's, this night, to bid the reign commence
Of rescu'd Nature, and reviving Sense; * To chace the charms of sound, the pomp of show,
For useful mirth and falutary woe; Bid scenic Virtue form the rising age, ? And Truth diffuse her radiance from the stage.'
This masterly and spirited address failed in a great measure of its effect; the town, it is true, submitted to the revival of Shakespeare's plays, recommended as they were by the exquisite acing of Mr. Garrick; but in a few winters they discovered an impatience for pantomimes and ballad-farces, and were indulged with them. From that time Mr. Garrick gave up the hope of correcting the public taste, and at length became so indifferent about it, that he once told me, that if the town required him to exhibit the · Pilgrim's Progress' in a drama, he would do it.
Two years after, the management of Drury-lane theatre being in the hands of his friends, Johnson bethought himself of bringing his tragedy on the stage. It was not only a juvenile composition, but was written before he had become conversant with Shakespeare, indeed before he had ever read Othello, and having now, for more than ten years, lain by him, in which time his judgment had been growing to maturity, he
iet himself to revise and polish it, taking to his affiltance Mr. Garrick, whose experience of stage decorum, and the mechanic operation of incidents and sentiments on the judgment and passions of an audience, was, by long attention, become very great. With these advantages and all those others which Mr. Garrick's zeal prompted him to supply, such as magnificent scenery, splendid and well-chosen dresses, and a distribution of the principal parts, himself taking a very active one, to the best performers then living, namely, Barry, Mrs. Cibber and Mrs. Pritchard ; it was, in the winter of the year 1749, presented to a polite, a numerous, and an unprejudiced audience. Never was there such a display of eastern magnificence as this spectacle exhibited, nor ever were fine moral fentiments more strongly enforced by correct and energetic utterance and just action, than in the representation of this laboured tragedy; but the diction of the piece was cold and philosophical; it came from the head of the writer, and reached not the hearts of the hearers. The consequence whereof was, that it was received with cold applause, and having reached to a ninth night's performance, was laid by. During the representation Johnson was behind the scenes, and thinking his character of an author required upon the occasion some distinction of dress, he appeared in a gold-laced waistcoat.
The truth of the above affertion, as to the language of this tragedy, is to be judged of by the perusal of it; for, notwithstanding its ill success as a dramatic representation, Johnson found his account in giving it to the world as a poem, Of the fable, the cha0.4
racters, and the sentiments, it is beside my purpose to speak; they are also now open to examination. It is nevertheless worthy of a remark, that the author has shewn great judgment in deviating from historical verity, as will appear by a comparison of the drama with the story as related by Knolles, and abridged in a foregoing page; for whereas the historian describes Irene as endowed with the perfections as well of the mind as of the body, and relates that she was an innocent viction to the ferocity of a tyrant, Johnson thought that such a catastrophe was too shocking for representation, and has varied the narrative by making the lady renounce her religion, and subjecting her to the suspicion of being a joint conspirator in a plot to assassinate the Sultan; but of which he is afterwards convinced she is innocent. - In thus altering the story, it must however be confefled, that much of its beauty is destroyed, and the character of Mahomet represented with none of those terrible graces that dignify the narrative : his public love and command over himself are annihilated, and he is exhibited as a tyrant and a voluptuary. : The world foon formed an opinion of the merit of Irene, which has never Auctuated : a representation during nine nights, was as much as a tragedy which excited no passion could claim ; for, however excellent its precepts, and however correct its language, that it wants those indispensable qualities in the drama, interest and pathos, cannot be denied. We read it, admit every position it advances, commend it, lay it by, and forget it: our attention is not awakened by any eminent beauties, for its merit is uniform through
out: all the personages, good or bad, are philosophers: those who execute and those who issue the orders talk the same language : the characters cause no anxiety, for the virtuous are superior to all mortal calamity, and the vicious beneath our care: the fate of Irene, though deplorable, is just; notwithstanding she suffers by a false accusation, her apostacy and treachery to her friend deserve punishment: the morality, it is needless to say of Johnson's spontaneous productions, is excellent; but how were unimpassioned precepts to make their way alone, where variety, business and plot are always expected? where lively nonsense and pathetic imbecillity often succeed against the conviction of reason? Or how could it be hoped that frigid virtue could attract those who suffer their pity to be easily moved either by the hero or the villain, if he has the address first to engage their passions ?
Of the expectations that Johnson had entertained of the success of his tragedy, no conjecture can now be formed. If they are to be judged of by his outward demeanour after the town had consigned it to oblivion, they were not very fanguine; indeed the receipt of three nights must have afforded him some consolation ; and we must suppose that he increased the emolument thence arising, by the sale of the copy. We are therefore not to impute it to the disappointment of a hope that the play would be better received than it was, that in the winter of the same
he published another imitation of Juvenal, viz. of his tenth satire, with the title of 'The vanity of human wishes ;' the subject whereof, as it is an enumeration of the evils to which mankind are exposed, could not, at any period of his life, have been other than a