Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Massinger, Milton, and the Italian Theatre.

The pantomimic characters and the extemporal comedy of Italy may have had some influence even on our own dramatic poets: this source has indeed escaped all notice; yet I incline to think it explains a difficult point in Massinger, which has baffled even the keen spirit of Mr. Gifford.

A passage in Massinger bears a striking resemblance with one in Molière’s “Malade Imaginaire.” It is in “The Emperor of the East,” vol. iii. 317. The Quack or “Empiric’s “ humorous notion is so closely that of Molière’s, that Mr. Gifford, agreeing with Mr. Gilchrist, “finds it difficult to believe the coincidence accidental;” but the greater difficulty is, to conceive that “Massinger ever fell into Molière’s hands.” At that period, in the infancy of our literature, our native authors and our own language were as insulated as their country. It is more than probable that Massinger and Molière had drawn from the same source — the Italian Comedy. Massinger’s “Empiric,” as well as the acknowledged copy of Molière’s “Médecin,” came from the “Dottore” of the Italian Comedy. The humour of these old Italian pantomimes was often as traditionally preserved as proverbs. Massinger was a student of Italian authors; and some of the lucky hits of their theatre, which then consisted of nothing else but these burlesque comedies, might have circuitously reached the English bard; and six-and-thirty years afterwards, the same traditional jests might have been gleaned by the Gallic one from the “Dottore,” who was still repeating what he knew was sure of pleasing. Our theatres of the Elizabethan period seem to have had here the extemporal comedy after the manner of the Italians; we surely possess one of these Scenarios, in the remarkable “Platts,” which were accidentally discovered at Dulwich College, bearing every feature of an Italian Scenario. Steevens calls them ”a mysterious fragment of ancient stage direction,” and adds, that “the paper describes a species of dramatic entertainment of which no memorial is preserved in any annals of the English stage.”1 The commentators on Shakspeare appear not to have known the nature of these Scenarios. The “Platt,” as it is called, is fairly written in a large hand, containing directions appointed to be stuck up near the prompter’s station; and it has even an oblong hole in its centre to admit of being suspended on a wooden peg. Particular scenes are barely ordered, and the names, or rather nicknames, of several of the players, appear in the most familiar manner, as they were known to their companions in the rude green-room of that day: such as “Pigg, White and Black Dick and Sam, Little Will Barne, Jack Gregory, and the Red-faced fellow.”2 Some of these “Platts” are on solemn subjects, like the tragic pantomime; and in some appear “Pantaloon, and his man Peascod, with spectacles.“ Steevens observes, that he met with no earlier example of the appearance of Pantaloon, as a specific character on our stage; and that this direction concerning “the spectacles” cannot fail to remind the reader of a celebrated passage in As You Like It:

—— The lean and slipper’d Pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose ——.

Perhaps, he adds, Shakspeare alludes to this personage, as habited in his own time. The old age of Pantaloon is marked by his leanness, and his spectacles and his slippers. He always runs after Harlequin, but cannot catch him; as he runs in slippers and without spectacles, is liable to pass him by without seeing him. Can we doubt that this Pantaloon had come from the Italian theatre, after what we have already said? Does not this confirm the conjecture, that there existed an intercourse between the Italian theatre and our own? Farther, Tarleton the comedian, and others, celebrated for their “extemporal wit,” was the writer or inventor of one of these “Platts.” Stowe records of one of our actors that “he had a quick, delicate, refined, extemporal wit.” And of another, that “he had a wondrous, plentiful, pleasant, extemporal wit.” These actors, then, who were in the habit of exercising their impromptus, resembled those who performed in the unwritten comedies of the Italians. Gabriel Harvey, the Aristarchus of the day, compliments Tarleton for having brought forward a new species of dramatic exhibition. If this compliment paid to Tarleton merely alludes to his dexterity at extemporaneous wit in the character of the clown, as my friend Mr. Douce thinks, this would be sufficient to show that he was attempting to introduce on our stage the extemporal comedy of the Italians, which Gabriel Harvey distinguishes as “a new species.” As for these “Platts,” which I shall now venture to call “Scenarios,” they surprise by their bareness, conveying no notion of the piece itself, though quite sufficient for the actors. They consist of mere exits and entrances of the actors, and often the real names of the actors are familiarly mixed with those of the dramatis personæ. Steevens has justly observed, however, on these skeletons, that although “the drift of these dramatic pieces cannot be collected from the mere outlines before us, yet we must not charge them with absurdity. Even the scenes of Shakspeare would have worn as unpromising an aspect, had their skeletons only been discovered.” The printed scenarios of the Italian theatre were not more intelligible; exhibiting only the hints for scenes.

Thus, I think, we have sufficient evidence of an intercourse subsisting between the English and Italian theatres, not hitherto suspected; and I find an allusion to these Italian pantomimes, by the great town-wit Tom Nash, in his “Pierce Pennilesse,” which shows that he was well acquainted with their nature. He indeed exults over them, observing that our plays are “honourable and full of gallant resolution, not consisting, like theirs, of pantaloon, a zany, and a w —— e, (alluding to the women actors of the Italian stage;3) but of emperors, kings, and princes.” My conviction is still confirmed, when I find that Stephen Gosson wrote the comedy of “Captain Mario;” it has not been printed, but “Captain Mario” is one of the Italian characters.4

Even at a later period, the influence of these performances reached the greatest name in the English Parnassus. One of the great actors and authors of these pieces, who published eighteen of these irregular productions, was Andreini, whose name must have the honour of being associated with Milton’s, for it was his comedy or opera which threw the first spark of the Paradise Lost into the soul of the epic poet — a circumstance which will hardly be questioned by those who have examined the different schemes and allegorical personages of the first projected drama of Paradise Lost: nor was Andreini, as well as many others of this race of Italian dramatists, inferior poets. The Adamo of Andreini was a personage sufficiently original and poetical to serve as the model of the Adam of Milton. The youthful English poet, at its representation, carried it away in his mind. Wit indeed is a great traveller; and thus also the “Empiric” of Massinger might have reached us from the Bolognese “Dottore.”

The late Mr. Hole, the ingenious writer on the Arabian Nights, observed to me that Molière, it must be presumed, never read Fletcher’s plays, yet his “Bourgeois Gentilhomme” and the other’s “Noble Gentleman” bear in some instances a great resemblance. Both may have drawn from the same Italian source of comedy which I have here indicated.

Many years after this article was written, has appeared “The History of English Dramatic Poetry,” by Mr. Collier. That very laborious investigator has an article on “Extemporal Plays and Plots,” iii. 393. The nature of these ”plats” or “plots” he observes, “our theatrical antiquaries have not explained.” The truth is that they never suspected their origin in the Italian “scenarios.” My conjectures are amply confirmed by Mr. Collier’s notices of the intercourse of our players with the Italian actors. Whetstone’s Heptameron, in 1582, mentions “the comedians of Ravenna, who are not tied to any written device.“ In Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy the extemporal art is described:—-

The Italian tragedians were so sharp of wit,

That in one hour of meditation

They would perform anything in action.

These extemporal players were witnessed much nearer than in Italy — at the Théâtre des Italiens at Paris — for one of the characters replies —

I have seen the like,

In Paris, among the French tragedians.

Ben Jonson has mentioned the Italian “extemporal plays” in his “Case is Altered;” and an Italian commediante his company were in London in 1578, who probably let our players into many a secret.

1 I refer the reader to Steevens’s edition, 1793, vol. ii. p. 495, for a sight of these literary curiosities.

2 The commencement of the “Platt” of the “Seven Deadly Sinnes,” believed to be a production of the famous Dick Tarleton, will sufficiently enlighten the reader as to the character of the whole. The original is preserved at Dulwich, and is written in two columns, on a pasteboard about fifteen inches high, and nine in breadth. We have modernised the spelling:—

“A tent being placed on the stage for Henry the Sixth; he in it asleep. To him the lieutenant, and a pursuivant (R. Cowley, Jo. Duke), and one warder (R. Pallant). To them Pride, Gluttony, Wrath, and Covetousness at one door; at another door Envy, Sloth, and Lechery. The three put back the four, and so exeunt.

“Henry awaking, enter a keeper (J. Sincler), to him a servant (T. Belt), to him Lidgate and the keeper. Exit, then enter again — then Envy passeth over the stage. Lidgate speakes.”

3 Women were first introduced on the Italian stage about 1560 — it was therefore an extraordinary novelty in Nash’s time.

4 That this kind of drama was perfectly familiar to the play-goers of the era of Elizabeth, is clear from a passage in Meres’ “Palladis Tamica,” 1598; who speaks of Tarleton’s extemporal power, adding a compliment to “our witty Wilson, who, for learning and extemporal wit, in this faculty is without compare or compeer; as to his great and eternal commendations, he manifested in his challenge at the Swan, on Bank-side.” The Swan was one of the theatres so popular in the era of Elizabeth and James I., situated on the Bankside, Southwark.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37