« ZurückWeiter »
he clutches the devoted MS., and whispers in the ear of the affrighted man, “Silence! it is condemned for ever !"—and then vanishing at the word into smoke, together with all the author's hopes and the actors' meditated conquests--an apparition such as this, is a thing to make one who looks theatreward for any earthly honours, feel rather shudderingly wnen he is alone in his chamber with his own thcughts and unexecuted purposes ; reminding him of the familiars of the Holy Office, of the Council of Ten, the Lion's Mouth, the Star Chamber, and the oubliette. Indeed, the whole machinery appears expressly designed in the eyes of the undeveloped dramatist, for no other pure pose than that of forwarding him by the safest conveyance to the lastmentioned agreeable destination. If a foreigner were to land suddenly upon our shores (a thing not to be done, thanks to revolving lights, piers, and custom-houses), and to be informed that there was a certain functionary in this country, who exercised a blind, irresponsible, self-willed authority over the drama—such as we have been indicating-he wouldn't believe it. He would say, “ No, sare—you one great mistake -England is grand constitutional government-the pattern of the world for liberty-when slavey step upon the land, manacles drop from him, he breathe, he dance, he do what he like-no, sare-you one infernal mistake-any man in England write play."
The crowning absurdity of the matter is this, that, although the Examiner can forbid the enactment of a play upon the stage, he has no more power over its publication than the man in the moon. sequence is, that the moment the play is prohibited, out it comes in unalterable type, with an inflammatory preface, which will stimulate the curiosity of the public ten thousand times more than its simple production at the theatre could have done under any circumstances; and by means of which the “ perilous stuff" it contains, if it contain any, becomes rapidly transmitted from hand to hand all over the kingdom, and hunted out, and pondered over with that zest and zeal which always characterize the popular longing after forbidden fruit. It fol. lows, therefore, that the vigilant Examiner, not having the further power (which, for consistency sake, he ought to have,) of preventing ihe printing as well as the acting of plays, never can exercise his prohibitory functions without inficting upon public morals and common sense tenfold the mischief his protective veto is intended to avert; and that the very best possible way to ensure the extensive circulation of sedition, treason, or immorality, is to put them into a play, and get the Censor to condemn it wholesale. This Hibernian method of checking the diffusion of dramatic corruption, bears a close resemblance to the fate of Mr. O'Callaghan's tragedy, the gentleman from Cork, who went over to America to seek his fortune, and having written a tragedy, found that the nearest theatre was 4000 miles off. “By the powers,” exclaimed Mr. O'Callaghan, “my play had a fine long run before it was brought out at all !"
It must be apparent to every thinking person—even to the identical Examiner himself, who, we presume, thinks sometimes on other subjects-that this is a despotism which wants to be clear-starched. A pure, clear, despotic control over works of imagination, which are liable, now and then, to be made the sly organs of dangerous doctrines or opinions, is a practical assertion of an intelligible principle; but to stop the vent in one direction, only to enlarge it in another, is a process not very reconcilable with the symmetry of English legislation or English reason. It is just like forbidding a man to fire pistols
in the streets, but allowing him to fire off cannon with impunity. The naked folly of this censorship is one good ground for demanding its abolition; but there is still a better in its hostility to the essential spirit of our institutions. Censorships do not take vigorous root in our soil. The law is strong enough to punish all offences after they are committed, without the help of a tribunal to decide and punish them in a sort of side-wind beforehand, leaving them to be perpetrated after all in a different but still more attractive and alarming form.
We contend that such a censorship-with half-powers of suppression, exercised sometimes, too, (as all such powers are sure to be when they are irresponsible) with caprice, or carelessness, or without judgment is in the last degree injurious to the interests of the living drama; that it is calculated to dishearten and disgust men of genius, and to drive them from the cultivation of dramatic literature; and that it operates as a direct and cruel hardship upon the managers of theatres, who may thus, as in the instance before us, be deprived of the opportunity of bringing out works of the highest merit, from which alone they can hope to reap an adequate reward for their exertions and their outlay. Even if the decisions of the Censor were always just, our argument would still hold good; for what security could we have that they should continue so ? But they are not always just. They are sometimes not merely unjust, but utterly inexplicable. The comedy of “ Richelieu in Love” is a conspicuous illustration.
The comedy, it appears, was accepted with frankness and cordiality at the Haymarket. These are qualities which every body accords to Mr. Webster, and to which the author of “ Richelieu" bears honourable testimony. The play is, indeed, dedicated to the manager, a proof of the sympathy manifested on its behalf by a functionary wbó was much more seriously interested in its morality than the Exaininer. Preparations were made to put it on the stage with splendour. But in the midst of these sunny preliminaries, down falls a thunderbolt that scares the merry group, and puts a final stop to their tricksy delight. First came an admonition to proceed no further without orders ; next, says the author, an absolute prohibition to proceed at all!
“People in irresponsible authority,” he continues, "exercise it with a graceful ease, a decision, a brevity, which must excite admiration in all who have not witnessed the administration of justice in Turkey. So deeply founded were the objections of the officials, that nothing but the total ruin of the drama could remove them. Not even mangling-a favourite operation when it is equally inconvenient to prohibit a work, and to allow it to appear-could do it any good. Lamed, disfigured, ragged, idiotic, as it might have been made, like a battered soldier of the wars, still it would have been dangerous. The shattered musket, the rusty sword, the broken bayonet, tell at least what the man has been. Persuasion and argument were equally in vain ; irresponsible office has armour against both.”
Nothing would do—and so the whole phantasmagoria vanished." But, although the judges in this august court are not bound by law to give any reasons at all-which, says the author, would be always inconvenient, and sometimes impossible--they did assign reasons for
burking his production. As clearly as we can extricate their reasons from the mysterious and reluctant explanation which seems to have been extorted from them, we gather that the comedy was unfit to be represented, because it was calculated to bring "church and state into contempt.” They might as well have said, that it was calculated to set the Thames on fire. But this fear of bringing church and state into contempt, is an old superstition. We thought it had gone out of the world with the horrors of witchcraft and sorcery.
We are not about to forestall the reader's pleasure in the perusal of one of the ablest protests against the arrogance and tyranny of a secret and irresponsible tribunal we ever read. We will not touch a fraction of the eloquent preface, but leave it in its entirety to the candid and dispassionate consideration of those whom it most concerns—namely, the public themselves. Our business lies with the play, and we shall despatch it swiftly.
A careful and critical examination of the comedy, with a view to the discovery of the points upon which the licencer prohibited its production, enables us to assert, without fear of contradiction, that no man in England, except the licencer himself, could point out a single passage situation, scene, or combination of any kind, which bears such a construction as that, upon the pretext of which this piece has been sentenced to perpetual ostracism from the English stage. We are ignorant of the licencer's tests of political propriety, and speak under correction. Poisons may exist in public forms which we wot not of; but all we have to aver is, that if the performance of this comedy would bring the church and state into contempt, then it must assuredly be only because they are already at their dying gasp, on the principle that it is the last feather breaks the camel's back-since they have been subjected to the constant action of poisons a hundred times more violent, administered in frightfully larger doses, any time these three hundred years. If the licencer feels himself authorized or compelled by the stringent necessities of his esoteric vocation, to withdraw“ Richelieu" from the stage for profound reasons of church and state, why, in the name of that desecrated Analogy, at whose ponderous feet of clay so many noble victims have froin time to time been slain,—why, we ask, does he not cast the “ legion of devils” from the stage that have taken possession of it in the names of Henry VIII., Macbeth, King John, Richard, and scores more? Surely if it be possible to bring church and state into contempt in that place which people generally frequent for the sake of forgetting both, these plays must have done it long ago? What has this Expurgator to say for himself why he does not prohibit Shakspeare-the greatest contemner of all falsehood and hypocrisy and wrong-doing and insolence of office, whether of church and state, or of their beadle who lackies them in the playhouse, this country has ever seen?
The subject of “ Richelieu” is thoroughly within the province of comedy. It turns upon the adventures of Charles I. (then Prince Charles), and Villiers, Duke of Buckingham; ending, as the scandalous memoirs tell us, in a preposterous intrigue of the latter (if it deserved to be so highly coloured) with the beautiful Anne d'Autriche, and the love marriage of the former with the Princess Henriette Marie. In the treatment of this tempting subject, the author has availed himself of the full licence of the age and the art. His dialogue is everywhere buoyant and sprightly, sometimes full of a refined and most relishing wit, and occasionally, but rarely, a little in excess on the side of licentiousness. There was an obvious difficulty, however, in dealing with such personages and such an epoch of gallantry, and, although there are two or three trivial passages, suggestive rather than openly objectionable, which it might have been wise to have dropped out in representation, there is nothing in the play which can offend the most sensitive delicacy. On the contrary, it exhibits a group of wits, courtiers, and beauties, cast into the heat of a dangerous imbroglio at the flood of their youth and animal spirits, and conducting themselves out of it at least with a spiritual grace and conscious dignity which, if any thing could, ought to have won the admiration of the licencer, and absorbed all his scruples in the redeeming virtue of the catastrophe.
As a dramatic composition with a view to representation on the stage, the merits of this comedy do not appear so decisive to us as its great merits as a fine piece of true comedy writing. It is not constructed with much art. The action is slow and not very marked. The first act is twice as long as the second. Some of the scenes impinge awkwardly upon others, and in one, the queen makes her exit in her own proper dress to re-appear in male attire as the next scene draws -a thing clearly impossible in representation. We suggest these points, not under an impression that a work of this high and earnest kind, so visibly and glowingly impressed with marks of genius and poetical fire, could have failed to succeed, but rather to reconcile the reader, who has lost the pleasure of first catching its wit in lightning flashes from the stage, to the form in which he now receives it, -committed without life, action, costume, to his own judgment and appreciation. Comedies above all other shapes of dramatic lore, require to be realized on the stage, in order to the bringing out of the life that is in them; and it is a signal part of the merit of this comedy, that it can afford to dispense with that important means of effect.
One word more. The author is wrong in thinking—if so sagacious and wide-reaching an intellect does really think that he has invented a new species of drama in taking from history the materials of his comedy. That distinct form of comedy is recognised under its distinct title by the French; and several examples of it are to be found on our own stage in more or less modified shapes.
One word more upon the Prohibitor. This is a question which affects the freedom of literature at large-not merely stage literature. It affects the right of all English authors when any author is thus struck down, without trial, without being allowed to defend himself, without being allowed to amend his error, if any had been proved against him, and,
above all, without the right of appeal. No man but an English dramatist can be thus treated in England. Well may the author of “ Richelieu" demand, " Is it just or unjust to put any citizen out of the pale of the constitution, and into the power of an irresponsible and arbitrary tribunal ?-why should the drama be the only species of literature still marked with the brand of slavery?" We repeat, this is a question which concerns all men of letters, and we ask them, will they submit to the infliction of so flagrant an injustice ?
LETTERS FROM HONG KONG AND MACAO.
BY ARCHIBALD R. RIDGWAY, ESQ.
(Concluded from page 313.) A lot of small canoes, each about eight feet long (sometimes much less), and holding one man, who sits in the stern, and paddles along, with a large oval paddle, are continually prowling about, with the ostensible purpose of selling fruit, pictures, and such innocent articles, but underneath them is concealed the samshoo they sell to sailors. This is a strong spirit prepared from rice, and though drank by the Chirese at every meal, is peculiarly pernicious to European constitutions, and the cause of four-fifths of the cases of dysentery that affect so many of the seamen. It is almost impossible to guard against this pest on board a ship, for the canoes are continually on the watch of the introduction under the bows, and the sailors take every opportunity of smuggling it. One favourite mode of doing this is, to let a long string float with a cork at its end, to some distance from the ship, when the Chinaman in the canoe, watching his opportunity, fastens on a bottle of samshoo, which of course sinks to the bottom, and is then quietly drawn on board, and with a secrecy that would evade the hundred eyes of Argus.
There is another class of boats, intermediate between the canoe and the sampan ; a great number of them are seen just before the tide makes, floating down the stream, and each managed by a woman, while her husband throws over a small net, which he soon again hauls up; I have watched them often, but have never seen any thing caught.
When I first went up there were a great many vessels—at least fifty or sixty-at Whampoa, some of which had been lying there, four, five, and six months, waiting for cargoes; for very little business was for some months transacted in exports, as the merchants were in the vain expectation that the tariff' would have been speedily arranged, and were of course desirous to avail themselves of all its promised advantages in the purchase of teas, &c. The ships therefore waited patiently, or rather impatiently, for they had no choice, as every harbour in the world was overflowing with tonnage.
Shortly before my arrival Whampoa had been enlivened to an unwonted degree by the presence of some ladies, in honour of whom, I have been told, a constant succession of dinner-parties and dances were given. The ladies went up to Whampoa, and visited Canton, upon the strength of an article in the as yet unratified treaty of peace, that stipulated that the families of foreigners should be allowed to reside at the several ports in China open to trade. Until this period the Chinese government had been as jealous of admitting foreign women
nto the central land as they were of permitting native women to leave it ; that is, they did not allow either the one or the other.
The exclusion of foreign women has been attributed to an ancient prediction, that China should be conquered by a foreign woman, and some people triumphantly point out our glorious queen; just as when BhurtMarch.- VOL. LXX. NO.CCLSSIX.