Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Condemned Poets.

I flatter myself that those readers who have taken any interest in my volume have not conceived me to have been deficient in the elevated feeling which, from early life, I have preserved for the great literary character: if time weaken our enthusiasm, it is the coldness of age which creeps on us, but the principle is unalterable which inspired the sympathy. Who will not venerate those master-spirits “whose PUBLISHED LABOURS advance the good of mankind,” and those BOOKS which are “the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, imbalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life?” But it has happened that I have more than once incurred the censure of the inconsiderate and the tasteless, for attempting to separate those writers who exist in a state of perpetual illusion; who live on querulously, which is an evil for themselves, and to no purpose of life, which is an evil to others. I have been blamed for exemplifying “the illusions of writers in verse,”1 by the remarkable case of Percival Stockdale,2 who, after a condemned silence of nearly half a century, like a vivacious spectre throwing aside his shroud in gaiety, came forward, a venerable man in his eightieth year, to assure us of the immortality of one of the worst poets of his age; and for this wrote his own memoirs, which only proved, that when authors are troubled with a literary hallucination, and possess the unhappy talent of reasoning in their madness, a little raillery, if it cannot cure, may serve at least as a salutary regimen.

I shall illustrate the case of condemned authors who will still be pleading after their trials, by a foreign dramatic writer. Among those incorrigible murmurers at public justice, not the least extraordinary was a M. Peyraud de Beaussol, who, in 1775, had a tragedy, Les Arsacides, in six acts, printed, “not as it was acted,” as Fielding says on the title-page of one of his comedies, but “as it was damned!”

In a preface, this Sir Fretful, more inimitable than that original, with all the gravity of an historical narrative, details the public conspiracy; and with all the pathetic touches of a shipwrecked mariner, the agonies of his literary egotism.

He declares that it is absurd to condemn a piece which they can only know by the title, for heard it had never been! And yet he observes, with infinite naïveté, “My piece is as generally condemned as if the world had it all by heart.”

One of the great objections against this tragedy was its monstrous plan of six acts; this innovation did not lean towards improvement in the minds of those who had endured the long sufferings of tragedies of the accepted size. But the author offers some solemn reasons to induce us to believe that six acts were so far from being too many, that the piece had been more perfect with a seventh! M. de Beaussol had, perhaps, been happy to have known, that other dramatists have considered that the usual restrictions are detrimental to a grand genius. Nat. Lee, when in Bedlam, wrote a play in twenty-five acts.

Our philosophical dramatist, from the constituent principles of the human mind, and the physical powers of man, and the French nation more particularly, deduces the origin of the sublime, and the faculty of attention. The plan of his tragedy is agreeable to these principles: Monarchs, Queens, and Rivals, and every class of men; it is therefore grand! and the acts can be listened to, and therefore it is not too long! It was the high opinion that he had formed of human nature and the French people, which at once terrified and excited him to finish a tragedy, which, he modestly adds, “may not have the merit of any single one; but which one day will be discovered to include the labour bestowed on fifty!”

No great work was ever produced without a grand plan. “Some critics,” says our author, “have ventured to assert that my six acts may easily be reduced to the usual five, without injury to the conduct of the fable.” To reply to this required a complete analysis of the tragedy, which, having been found more voluminous than the tragedy itself, he considerately “published separately.” It would be curious to ascertain whether a single copy of the analysis of a condemned tragedy was ever sold. And yet this critical analysis was such an admirable and demonstrative criticism, that the author assures us that it proved the absolute impossibility, “and the most absolute too,” that his piece could not suffer the slightest curtailment. It demonstrated more — that the gradation and the development of interest required necessarily seven acts! but, from dread of carrying this innovation too far, the author omitted one act, which passed behind the scenes!3 but which ought to have come in between the fifth and sixth! Another point is proved, that the attention of an audience, the physical powers of man, can be kept up with interest much longer than has been calculated; that his piece only takes up two hours and three quarters, or three hours at most, if some of the most impassioned parts were but declaimed rapidly.4

Now we come to the history of all the disasters which happened at the acting of this tragedy. “How can people complain that my piece is tedious, when, after the first act, they would never listen ten minutes to it? Why did they attend to the first scenes, and even applaud one? Let me not be told, because these were sublime, and commanded the respect of the cabal raised against it; because there are other scenes far more sublime in the piece, which they perpetually interrupted. Will it be believed, that they pitched upon the scene of the sacrifice of Volgesie, as one of the most tedious? — the scene of Volgesie, which is the finest in my piece; not a verse, not a word in it, can be omitted!5 Everything tends towards the catastrophe; and it reads in the closet as well as it would affect us on the stage. I was not, however, astonished at this; what men hear, and do not understand, is always tedious; and it was recited in so shocking a tone by the actress, who, not having entirely recovered from a fit of illness, was flurried by the tumult of the audience. She declaimed in a twanging tone like psalm-singing; so that the audience could not hear, among the fatiguing discordances (he means their own hissing), nor separate the thoughts and words from the full chant which accompanied them. They objected perpetually to the use of the word Madame between two female rivals, as too comic; one of the pit, when an actress said Madame, cried out ‘Say Princesse!‘ This disconcerted the actress. They also objected to the words àpropos and mal-àpropos. Yet, after all, how are there too many Madames in the piece, since they do not amount to forty-six in the course of forty-four scenes? Of these, however, I have erased half.”

This historian of his own wrong-headedness proceeds, with all the simplicity of this narrative, to describe the hubbub.

“Thus it was impossible to connect what they were hearing with what they had heard. In the short intervals of silence, the actors, who, during the tumult, forgot their characters, tried with difficulty to recover their conception. The conspirators were prepared to a man; not only in their head, but some with written notes had their watchwords, to set their party a-going. They seemed to act with the most extraordinary concert; they seemed to know the exact moment when they were to give the word, and drown, in their hurly-burly, the voice of the actor, who had a passionate part to declaim, and thus break the connexion between the speakers. All this produced so complete an effect, that it seemed as if the actors themselves had been of the conspiracy, so wilful and so active was the execution of the plot. It was particularly during the fifth and sixth acts that the cabal was most outrageous; they knew these were the most beautiful, and deserved particular attention. Such a humming arose, that the actors seemed to have had their heads turned; some lost their voice, some declaimed at random, the prompter in vain cried out, nothing was heard, and everything was said; the actor, who could not hear the catch-word, remained disconcerted and silent; the whole was broken, wrong and right; it was all Hebrew. Nor was this all; the actors behind the scene were terrified, and they either came forwards trembling, and only watching the signs of their brother actors, or would not venture to show themselves. The machinist only, with his scene-shifters, who felt so deep an interest in the fate of my piece, was tranquil and attentive to his duty, to produce a fine effect. After the hurly-burly was over, he left the actors mute with their arms crossed. He opened the scenery! and not an actor could enter on it! The pit, more clamorous than ever, would not suffer the denouement! Such was the conduct, and such the intrepidity, of the army employed to besiege the Arsacides! Such was the cause of that accusation of tediousness made against a drama, which has most evidently the contrary defect!”

Such is the history of a damned dramatist, written by himself, with a truth and simplicity worthy of a happier fate. It is admirable to see a man, who was himself so deeply involved in the event, preserve the observing calmness which could discover the minutest occurrence; and, allowing for his particular conception of the cause, detailing them with the most rigid veracity. This author was unquestionably a man of the most honourable probity, and not destitute of intellectual ability; but he must serve as an useful example of that wrong-headed nature in some men, which has produced so many “Abbots of Unreason” in society, whom it is in vain to convince by a reciprocation of arguments; who assuming false principles, act rightly according to themselves; a sort of rational lunacy, which, when it discovers itself in politics and religion, and in the more common affairs of life, has produced the most unhappy effects; but this fanaticism, when confined to poetry, only amuses us with the ludicrous; and, in the persons of Monsieur de Beaussol, and of Percival Stockdale, may offer some very fortunate self-recollections in that “Calamity of Authors” which I have called “The Illusions of Writers in Verse.”

1 Calamities of Authors, vol. ii. p. 313.

2 It first appeared in a review of his “Memoirs.”

3 The words are, “Une derrière la scène.” I am not sure of the-meaning, but an Act behind the scenes would be perfectly in character with this dramatic bard.

4 The exact reasoning of Sir Fretful, in the Critic, when Mrs. Dangle thought his piece “rather too long,” while he proves his play was “a remarkably short play."—“The first evening you can spare me three hours and a half, I’ll undertake to read you the whole, from beginning to end, with the prologue and epilogue, and allow time for the music between the acts. The watch here, you know, is the critic.”

5 Again, Sir Fretful; when Dangle “ventures to suggest that the interest rather falls off in the fifth act;"—“Rises, I believe you mean, sir."— No, I don’t, upon my word."—“Yes, yes, you do, upon my soul; it certainly don’t fall off; no, no, it don’t fall off.”

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