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it is more astonishing that Corneille should have chosen so magculine and agitating a subject, than that he should have failed in treating it with propriety or success.
In the following tragedy, Dryden has avowedly adopted the Greek model; qualified, however, by the under plot of Adrastus and Eurydico, which contributes little either to the effect or merit of the play. Creon, in his ambition and his deformity, is a poor copy of Richard III., without his abilities; his plots and treasons are baffled by the single appearance of (Edipus; and as for the loves and woes of Eurydice, and the prince of Argos, they are lost in the horrors of the principal story, like the moonlight amid the glare of a conflagration. In other respects, the conduct of the piece closely follows the Edipus Tyrannus,” and, in some respects, even improves on that excellent model. The Tiresias of Sophocles, for example, upon his first introduction, denounces Edipus as the slayer of Laius, braves his resentment, and prophesies his miserable catastrophe. In Dryden's play, the first anathema of the prophet is levelled only against the unknown murderer ; and it is not till the powers of hell have been invoked, that even the eye of the prophet can penetrate the horrible veil, and fix the guilt decisively upon (Edipus. By this means, the striking quarrel betwixt the monarch and Tiresias is, with great art, postponed to the third act; and the interest, of course, is more gradually heightened than in the Grecian tragedy.
The first and third acts, which were wholly written by Dryden, maintain a decided superiority over the rest of the piece. Yet there are many excellent passages scattered through Lee's scenes ; and as the whole was probably corrected by Dryden, the tragedy has the appearance of general consistence and uniformity. There are several scenes, in which Dryden seems to have indulged his newly adopted desire of imitating the stile of Shakespeare. Such are, in particular, the scene of Edipus walking in his sleep, which bears marks of Dryden's pen; and such, also, is the incantation in the third act. Seneca and Corneille bave thrown this last scene into narrative. Yet, by the present large size of our stages, and the complete management of light and shade, the incantation might be represented with striking effect; an advantage which, I fear, has been gained by the sacrifice of others, , much more essential to the drama, considered as a dignified and rational amusement. The incantation itself is nobly written, and the ghost of Laius can only be paralleled in Shakespeare.
The language of Edipus is, in general, nervous, pure, and elegant; and the dialogue, though in so high a tone of passion, is natural and affecting. Some of Lee's extravagancies are lamentable exceptions to this observation. This may be instanced in the passage, where Jocasta threatens to fire Olympus, destroy the hea
venly furniture, and smoke the deities like bees out of their ambrosial hites; and such is the still more noted wish of Edipus ;
Through all the inmost chambers of the sky,
These blemishes, however, are entitled to some indulgence from the reader, when they occur in a work of real genius. Those, who do not strive at excellence, will seldom fall into absurdity; as he, who is contented to walk, is little liable to stumble.
Notwithstanding the admirable disposition of the parts of this play, the gradual increase of the interest, and the strong impassioned language of the dialogue, the disagreeable nature of the plot forms an objection to its success upon a British stage. Distress, which turns upon the involutions of unnatural or incestuous passion, carries with it something too disgusting for the sympathy of a refined age; whereas, in a simple state of society, the feelings require a more powerful stimulus; as we see the vulgar crowd round an object of real horror, with the same pleasure we reap from seeing it represented on a theatre. Besides, in ancient times, in those of the Roman empire at least, such abominations really occurred, as sanctioned the story of Edipus. But the change of manners has introduced not only greater purity of moral feeling, but a sensibility, which retreats with abhorrence even from a fiction turning upon such circumstances. Hence, Garrick, who well knew the taste of an English audience, renounced his intention of reviving the excellent old play of “King and no King;" and hence Massinger's still more awful tragedy of “ The Unnatural Combat,” has been justly deemed unfit for a modern stage. Independent of this disgusting circumstance, it may be questioned, Whether the horror of this tragedy is not too powerful for furnishing mere amusement? It is said in the “ Companion to the Playhouse," that when the piece was performing at Dublin, a musician, in the orchestra, was so powerfully affected by the madness of Edipus, as to become himself actually delirious: and though this may be exaggerated, it is certain, that, when the play was revived about thirty years ago, the audience were unable to support it to an end; the boxes being all emptied before the third act was concluded. Among all our English plays, there is none more determinedly bloody than “ Edipus," in its progress and conclusion. The entrance of the unfortunate king, with his eyes torn from their sockets, is too disgusting for representation of all the
* Voltaire, however, held a different opinion. He thought a powerful effect might be produced by the exhibition of the blind king, indistinctly seen in
persons of the drama, scarce one survives the fifth act. Edipus dashes out his brains, Jocasta stabs herself, their children are strangled, Creon kills Eurydice, Adrastus kills Creon, and the insurgents kill Adrastus; when we add to this, that the conspirators are hanged, the reader will perceive, that the play, which began with a pestilence, concludes with a massacre,
And darkness is the burier of the dead.
Another objection to Edipus has been derived from the doctrine of fatalism, inculcated by the story. There is something of cant in talking much upon the influence of a theatre on public morals; yet, I fear, though the most moral plays are incapable of doing much good, the turn of others may make a mischievous impression, by embodying in verse, and rendering apt for the memory, maxims of an impious or profligate tendency. In this point of view, there is, at least, no edification in beholding the horrible crimes unto which (Edipus is unwillingly plunged, and in witnessing the dreadful punishment he sustains, though innocent of all moral or intentional guilt. Corneille has endeavoured to counterbalance the obvious conclusion, by a long tirade upon freewill, which I have subjoined, as it contains some striking ideas.* But the doctrine, which it expresses, is contradictory of the whole
the back ground, amid the shrieks of Jocasta, and the exclamations of the Thebans; provided the actor was capable of powerful gesture, and of expressing much passion, with little declamation.
* Quoi ! la necessite des vertus et des vices
D'un astre imperieur doit suivre les caprices?
D'un tel aveuglement daignez me dispenser
tenor of the story; and the correct deduction is much more justly summed up by Seneca, in the stoical maxim of necessity :
Fatis agimur, cedite Fatis ;
Some degree of poetical justice might have been preserved, and a valuable moral inculcated, had the conduct of dipus, in his combat with Laius, been represented as atrocious, or, at least, unwarrantable; as the sequel would then have been a warning, how impossible it is to calculate the consequences or extent of a single act of guilt, But, after all, Dryden perhaps extracts the true moral, while stating our insufficiency to estimate the distribution of good and evil in human lite, in a passage, which, in excellent poetry, expresses more sound truth, than a whole shelf of philosophers :
The Gods are just
The prologue states, that the play, if damned, may be recorded as the “ first buried since the Woollen Act." This enables us to fix the date of the performance. By the 30th Charles II. cap. 3. all persons were appointed to be buried in woollen after ist August, 1678. The play must therefore have been represented early in the season 1678-9. It was not printed until 1679.
Though it be dangerous to raise too great an expectation, especially in works of this nature, where we are to please an insatiable audience, yet it is reasonable to prepossess them in favour of an author; and therefore, both the prologue and epilogue informed you, that Edipus was the most celebrated piece of all antiquity; that Sophocles, not only the greatest wit, but one of the greatest men in Athens, made it for the stage at the public cost; and that it had the reputation of being his masterpiece, not only among the seven of his which are still remaining, but of the greater number which are perished. Aristotle has more than once admired it, in his Book of Poetry; Horace has mentioned it: Lucullus, Julius Cæsar, and other noble Romans, have written on the same subject, though their poems are wholly lost; but Seneca's is still preserved. In our own age, Corneille has attempted it, and, it
appears by his preface, with great success.
But a judicious reader will easily observe, how much the copy
is inferior to the original. He tells you himself, that he owes a great part of his success, to the happy episode of Theseus and Dirce ; which is the same thing, as if we should acknowledge, that we were