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ART. DCCXI. No. XII. On the scenic representation of the Tragedy
of Macbeth. “ Ita vertere seria ludo.”
TO THE RUMINATOR.
SIR, Much as has been written concerning the mighty powers of Shakspeare, the subject is even now hardly to be considered as exhausted. Lives of that extraordinary author, new editions of his works, with copious and even voluminous commentaries upon them, continue to be published almost in ever year; and new matter and new illustrations are received by the public with such avidity, to use his own words,
“ As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on.” Far be it from me to dissent from the general opinion; on the contrary, my admiration of the bard, the pride of my country, and perhaps, all circumstances considered, her most original genius ---increases with my years. It has grown with my growth; and those humorous, moral, and pathetic scenes which were the delight of my youth, form one of the greatest charms and most attractive pleasures of a time of life not far distant from old age.
It has always appeared to me peculiar to Shakspeare, and a marked distinction between him and all other dramatic writers, that those scenes which appear the finest, and give the highest gratification in the closet, fall short of, and disappoint the expectation on the stage, sometimes even to disgust. Whether the remark has been made before I know not, but probably the sensation must have been often experienced. Other plays, both ancient and modern, are sometimes well represented throughout, and with appropriate scenes and decorations; but I never yet saw a play of Shakspeare, of either Muse, which appeared to me to answer the design of the author, or give a just representation of his characters, situations, and scenery. The characters are often ill drest, the situations and scenery misunderstood, the comic parts made serious, and the serious comic.
This was, I presume, the reason why in the noble undertaking of Messrs. Boydell, the painters were directed to divest their minds carefully of every impression left on them, by the representation on the stage of the scenes allotted them to delineate, and to attend to the text of their author only; and, in most instances, they did this very successfully. In general they did not disgrace their pieces by the puerile absurdities which on the stage please the upper gallery only. *
Certainly it must be allowed that the good sense and classic imagination of Mr. Kemble has reformed many of the most striking abuses in the manner in which the plays of Shakspeare used to be represented; yet still it seems to me that much remains to be done, and many alterations to be made, before
* Yet that great painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his celebrated picture of the death of Cardinal Beaufort, has embodied the busy meddling fiend on the Cardinal's pillow. A useful hint to managers, as it would have a pretty as well as novel effect on the stage.
some of the finest dramas of our favourite author can be seen without disgust.
In the tragedy of Macbeth for instance, (the finest of all Shakspeare's plays, in the opinion of Dr. Farmer, Mr. Stevens, and, perhaps, of all good judges) some of the most striking scenes are so represented as to produce an effect directly the reverse of the author's meaning. In the closet what can be more awfully impressive than the appearance and predictions of the witches ? But what is the effect of it on the stage? A parcel of disgusting old women are seen, with long beards, and making grimaces like the clown in a pantomime; and instead of producing horror, or the weighty impression which made Macbeth start, and seem to fear, they excite no sensation but bursts of laughter from the galleries, and indignant contempt from all the spectators who have common sense. Surely this might be managed better. Rites supposed to be supernatural should not be brought forward in too strong a light. Let the witches and their cauldron be at the bottom of the stage, and be just visible through a mist or cloud. Let their voices be heard, but their forms only dimly and imperfectly seen; there will then be some scope for the imagination, and the scenic allusion will not be so violently destroyed.
The same observations are applicable to the different apparitions which they shew to Macbeth, all which, to produce any effect on the mind, should be seen only in an imperfect and undefined manner; such for instance, as the view of the haunted chamber in the popular opera of Bluebeard.
But still worse is the appearance of the ghost of Banquo managed. No stretch or power of fancy can make it seem supernatural. Brought forward in all the glare of light on the very front of the stage, with his whitened face, staring eyes, and bloody throat, it is impossible to suppose that the other guests do not see it as well as Macbeth. The good sense of Garrick, I think, banished the airy dagger; and is not the ghost of Banquo the same? Had the poet any other meaning than to shew the power and influence of conscience on the mind? Why then should one be represented to the spectators more than the other ? Surely the effect would be much more striking, if the chair which Macbeth fancies full were in reality less empty; for it would then plainly appear to be the effect only of his wounded conscience, which would give, as the poet designed, an awfulandaffecting lesson; whereas now the ghost excites more laughter than terror. If he must appear, let him at least be exiled to the bottom of the stage, and be hid in some degree by the table and the guests. Unless I mistake, his appearance was once omitted, and the gallery critics insisted on seeing their favourite again. Something muśt cere tainly be allowed to the populace; but Mr. Kemble's character is so high that he might resist such a disgrace to our national taste; and I think it also so firm that I may apply to him the lines of Horace,
No. XIII. « Ita facillime
Sine invidia laudem invenias et amicos pares.”
TO THE RUMINATOR. SIR, EMBỌLDENED by the example of your ingenious friend Mr. Random in a former Number of
your Censura, and still more by the candour which led you to insert his half serious, half ironical address, I too venture to offer you my advice. It will not be conveyed in terms of equal wit and humour, for I am, alas! the dullest of the dull, a prosing matterof-fact fellow of the old school. Wit and humour are, indeed, fascinating and most engaging qualities, but they are neither in the power of every man, nor are they equally delightful to all. That ridicule is the test of truth, though long a favourite maxim, is at length completely exploded by the much more unerring test of good sense. Who now would wish to see it applied either to books or their authors ? Who would desire to see an Addison changed to a Sterne, or the author of the Rambler even to “ old Will Duncombe” himself, though certainly that respectable gentleman must be confessed to have been as perfectly innocent with regard to wit, as the facetious steward in the " Drummer or the Haunted House."
But you are accused by your demo-critic correspondent of not abusing, or not pointing out the failings of those, of whose lives you give sketches. Now to apologize for vice, as Johnson did for the unfortunate Savage, is surely unbecoming a philo