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History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now

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Comedy and tragedy

Introduction

Goals

The main purpose of the present textbook is to encourage the reading and writing of plays. The plays are presented in a way to emphasize why scholarly and public attention have been continuously paid to them. There is also another goal: helping to make better known plays too much ignored, especially in the non-English literature. A particular emphasis is laid on action, what are the characters doing, or not doing.

Definition of drama

"A drama is the imitation of a complete action, adapted to the sympathetic attention of man, developed in a succession of continuously interesting and continuously related incidents, acted and expressed by means of speech and the symbols, actualities, and conditions of life. No definition in a paragraph, however comprehensive in terms, of what a drama is, can more than indicate its limitations and proportions. For the unskilled in particular, large elucidation is necessary to bring out the hidden meaning of the above descriptive phrases...As stated by Aristotle, a complete action is one that has a beginning, a middle, and an end; or, as it may be put, it contains a premise, an argument, and a conclusion. The premise or the beginning is a fact or state of facts, undisputed, accepted; for the action must have a sure starting-point. No antecedents, at least in the way of action, are required to explain it. Shakespeare tells, for example, in 'Romeo and Juliet' nothing of the causes or former incidents of quarrel between the Montagues and the Capulets. It is a sufficient beginning that the two houses are at deadly enmity" (Price, 1913 pp 1-3).

The drama and the world

“Consider all the different pursuits and employments of men, and you will find half their actions tend to nothing else but disguise and imposture; and all that is done which proceeds not from a man’s very self is the action of a player. For this reason it is that I make so frequent mention of the stage: it is, with me, a matter of the highest consideration what parts are well or ill performed, what passions or sentiments are indulged or cultivated, and consequently what manners and customs are transfused from the stage to the world, which reciprocally imitate each other” (Steele, 1712 The Spectator, no 370, May 5).

The pleasure of dramatic porductions

“It may possibly be imagined by severe men, that I am too frequent in the mention of the theatrical representations, but who is not excessive in the discourse of what he extremely likes? Eugenio can lead you to a gallery of fine pictures, which collection he is always increasing, Crassus through woods and forests, to which he designs to add the neighbouring counties. These are great and noble instances of their magnificence The players are my pictures and their scenes my territories. By communicating the pleasure I take in them, it may in some measure add to men’s gratifications this way, as viewing the choice and wealth of Eugenio and Crassus augments the enjoyments of those whom they entertain, with a prospect of such possessions as would not otherwise fall within the reach of their fortunes” (Steele, 1710 The Tatler no 182, June 8).

“There are no authors I am more pleased with than those who show human nature in a variety of views, and describe the several ages of the world in their different manners. A reader cannot be more rationally entertained, than by comparing the virtues and vices of his own times with those which prevailed in the times of his forefathers; and drawing a parallel in his mind between his own private character and that of other persons, whether of his own age, or of the ages that went before him. The contemplation of mankind under these changeable colours is apt to shame us out of any particular vice, or animate us to any particular virtue, to make us pleased or displeased with ourselves in the most proper points, to clear our mind of prejudice and prepossession, and to rectify that narrowness of temper which inclines us to think amiss of those who differ from ourselves” (Addison, 1711 The Spectator, no 209, October 30).

Tragedy versus comedy

“As a perfect tragedy is the noblest production of human nature, so it is capable of giving the mind one of the most delightful and most improving entertainments. ' A virtuous man,' says Seneca, 'struggling with misfortunes is such a spectacle as gods might look upon with pleasure' (On providence’). And such a pleasure it is which one meets with in the representation of a well-written tragedy. Diversions of this kind wear out of our thoughts every- thing that is mean and little. They cherish and cultivate that humanity which is the ornament of our nature” (Addison, 1711 The Spectator no 39, April 14).

“Tragedy is an imitation of life in passions; it is comedy only which imitates both passions and habits. A tragic actor, then, is to be estimated, not as he always copies nature, but as he satisfies the general opinion of life and manners. He must neither on the one hand debase his dignity by too natural a simplicity of manner, nor on the other give it a ridiculous elevation by pompousness and bombast. He cannot draw much of his knowledge from real life, because the loftier passions are rarely exhibited in the common intercourse of mankind; but nevertheless he should not indulge himself in novelties of invention, because the hearts of his audience will be unable to judge where their experience has no power. Much study should strengthen his judgment, since he must perfectly understand before he can feel his author and teach others to feel. Where there is strong natural genius, judgment will usually follow in the development of great passions, but it may fail in the minute proproprieties of the stage: where there is not a strong natural genius, the contrary will be generally found. For the common actions of great characters he must study the manner of the stage, for their passions nothing but nature” (Hunt, 1894 edition pp 2-3). “The passions of comedy are more faint than those of tragedy; they are rather emotions and inclinations for if they strengthen into a powerful character they become tragic. Thus sentimental comedy, in which the passions sometimes exert all their strength, is nothing more than an alternate compound of comedy and tragedy, just as the Orlando of Ariosto or the Lutrin of Boileau is a mixture of seriousness and pleasantry. It is more difficult to conceive passions than habits, principally because the former are less subject to common observation. In comic characters we generally recognise the manners or peculiarities of some person with whom we are acquainted, or who is at least known in the world; but of the deeper tragic passions we have only read or heard...The chief qualification of a comedian is an instantaneous perception of everything that varies from the general seriousness of human nature, or from that behaviour which is contemplated with a serious indifference. This variation must nevertheless be found in real life, or it becomes farcical; and as the actor shows his genius in the conception of humorous character, so it is in the nice division of comedy from farce that he shows his judgment. Such a division is a mark of his genius also, for however an able comedian may sometimes indulge in forced humour, a perpetual caricature is always a mark of a lesser genius: it is like bombast in tragedy; it paints to the senses not to the heart, and diverts the attention of the audience from too close an examination into the player's imitative talent” (Hunt, 1894 edition pp 23-29).

Death

"There is nothing in history which is so improving to the reader as those accounts which we meet with of the deaths of eminent persons and of their behaviour in that dreadful season. I may also add that there are no parts in history which affect and please the reader in so sensible a manner. The reason I take to be this, because there is no other single circumstance in the story of any person which can possibly be the case of every one who reads it. A battle or a triumph are conjunctures in which not one man in a million is likely to be engaged; but when we see a person at the point of death, we cannot forbear being attentive to everything he says or does, because we are sure that sometime or other we shall ourselves be in the same melancholy circumstances. The general, the statesman, or the philosopher are perhaps characters which we may never act in; but the dying man is one whom, sooner or later, we shall certainly resemble" (Addison, 1712 no 289, 31 January).

Murder and suicide

“Murder and suicide, which are easy devices in the hands of a capable dramatist, should be sparingly used in the theater. Physical violence loses much of its tragic impact unless it is shown to be inescapable. It is a quick way out for the playwright who doesn’t know what else to do or, with a more conscientious artist, an equally easy way of bringing his plot to a full stop...Violent death is seldom the solution of anything, in life or in fiction. It is too often a makeshift device. Do you remember Lessing’s anecdote? A spectator at a play asked his neighbor what a certain character died of. ‘Of the fifth act,’ was the reply, and Lessing adds that in ‘very truth the fifth act is an ugly disease that carries off many a one to whom the first four acts promised a longer life” (Clark, 1947 p 81).

Heroism

"A gentleman where I happened to be last night fell into a discourse which I thought showed a good discerning in him. He took notice, that whenever men have looked into their heart for the idea of true excellency in human nature, they have found it to consist in suffering after a right manner, and with a good grace. Heroes are always drawn bearing sorrows, struggling with adversities, undergoing all kinds of hardships, and having in the service of mankind a kind of appetite to difficulties and dangers. The gentleman went on to observe, that it is from the secret sense of the high merit which there is in patience under calamities that the writers of romances, when they attempt to furnish out characters of the highest excellence, ransack nature for things terrible; they raise a new creation of monsters, dragons, and giants. Where the danger ends, the hero ceases; when he has won an empire, or gained his mistress, the rest of his story is not worth relating. My friend carried his discourse so far as to say that it was for higher beings than men to join happiness and greatness in the same idea; but that in our condition we have no conception of superlative excellence, or heroism but as it is surrounded with a shade of distress" (Steele, 1712 no 312, February 27).

Criticism

"It is in criticism as in all other sciences and speculations; one who brings with him any implicit notions and observations which he has made in his reading of the poets will find his own reflections methodised and explained, and perhaps several little hints that had passed in his mind perfected and improved in the works of a good critic; whereas one who has not these previous lights is very often an utter stranger to what he reads and apt to put a wrong interpretation upon it" (Addison, 1712 The Spectator no 291, February 2).

Plays available on the Internet

Links on the Internet are provided to the complete version of the plays, with modern spelling. A more complete list of plays in English on the Internet is given in the "Added material" subsection presented below.

Chronology of plays

The dating of the plays is referenced according to the year first published or presented on stage, whichever came first, more rarely the year it was written in cases when neither the one nor the other occurred until much later. Included in Pre-World War (WW) II plays are plays up to 1945, as the main difference in style in 20th century plays occurs before and after that date.

Boulevard theatre

A separate French section during 19th and 20th centuries is given to Boulevard theatre in view of its prominence over other countries.

17th century English

From the Elizabethan period, English theatre developed to Jacobean and Caroline styles, offering in general more cynical tragedies and darker comedies. Restoration theatre emphasized the satiric to the detriment of romantic comedy, unlike Shakespeare who featured both aspects.

17th century French

17th century Spanish

18th century English

18th century French

18th century Spanish

18th century Italian

18th century German

18th century Scandinavian

19th century English

19th century French

19th century Spanish

19th century Italian

19th century German

19th century Russian

19th century Scandinavian

19th century American

20th century English

20th century French

20th century Spanish

20th century Latin American

20th century Italian

20th century German

20th century Russian

20th century Scandinavian

20th century East European

20th century American

20th century Canadian

21st century English

21st century French

21st century Italian

21st century Spanish

21st century Latin American

21st century German

21st century Russian

21st century Scandinavian

21st century East European

21st century American

21st century Canadian

Added material