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Moliere for comedy. Moliere, indeed, knew his own genius sooner, and was not less happy in procuring applause, though it often happened to him as to Corneille.
L’Ignorance & l’Erreur à ses naissantes pièces
But, without taking any farther notice of the time at which either came to the knowledge of his own genius, let us suppose that the powers of tragedy and comedy were as equally shared between Moliere and Corneille, as they are different in their own nature, and then nothing more will remain than to compare the several difficulties of each composition, and to rate those difficulties together which are common to both. *
It appears, first, that the tragic poet has in his subject an advantage over the comic, for he takes it from history; and his rival, at least in the more elevated and splendid comedy, is obliged to form it by his own invention. Now, it is not so easy as it might seem to find comic subjects capable of a new and pleasing form ; but history is a source, if not inexhaustible, yet certainly so copious as never to leave the genius aground. It is true, that invention seems to have a wider field than history ; real facts are limited in their number, but the facts which may be feigned have no end; but though, in this respect, invention may be allowed to have the advantage, is the difficulty of inventing to be accounted as nothing ? To make a tragedy is to get materials together, and to make use of them like a skilful architect ; but to make a comedy, is to build like Æsop in the air. It is in vain to boast that the compass of invention is as wide as the extent of desire ; every thing is limited, and the mind of man like every thing else. Besides, invention must be in conformity to nature ; but distinct and remarkable characters are very rare in nature herself. Moliere has got hold on the principal touches of ridicule. If any man should bring characters less strong, he will be in danger of dulness. Where comedy is to be kept up by subordinate personages, it is in great danger. All the force of a picture must arise from the principal persons, and not from the multitude clustered up together. In the same manner, a comedy, to be good, must be supported by a single striking character, and not by underparts.
But, on the contrary, tragic characters are without number, though of them the general outlines are limit. ed; but dissimulation, jealousy, policy, ambition, desire of dominion, and other interests and passions, are vari. ous without end, and take a thousand different forms in different situations of history ; so that as long as there is tragedy, there may be always novelty. Thus the jealous and dissembling Mithridates, so happily painted by Raeine will not stand in the way of a poet who shall attempt a jealous and dissembling Tiberius. The stormy vio. lence of an Achilles will always leave room for the stormy violence of an Alexander.
But the case is very different with avarice, trifling vanity, hypocrisy, and other vices, considered as ridicutous. It would be safer to double and treble all the tragedies of our greatest poets, and use all their subjects over and over, as has been done with Oedipus and Sophonisba, than to bring again upon the stage in five acts, a Miser, a Citizen turned Gentleman, a Tartuffe, and other subjects sufficiently known. Not that these popular vices are less capable of diversification, or are less varied by different circumstances, than the vices and passions of heroes ; but that if they were to be brought over again into comedies, they would be less distinct, less exact, less forcible, and consequently, less applauded. Pleasantry and ridicule must be more strongly marked than heroism and pathos, which support themselves by their own force. Besides, though these two things of so different natures could support them selves equally in equal variety, which is very far from being the case ; yet comedy, as it now stands, consists not in incidents, but in characters. Now it is by incidents only that characters are diversified, as well upon the stage of comedy, as upon the stage of life. Comedy, as Moliere has left it, resembles the pictures of manners drawn by the celebrated La Bruyere. Would any man after him venture to draw them over again, he: would expose himself to the fate of those who have ventured to continue them. For instance, what could we add to his character of the Absent Man? Shall we put him in other circumstances ? The principal strokes of absence of mind will always be the same ; and there are only those striking touches which are fit for a comedy, of which the end is painting after nature, but with strength and sprightliness like the designs of Callot. If comedy were among us what it is in Spain, a kind of romance, consisting of many circumstances and intrigues, perplexed and disentangled, so as to surprise ; if it was nearly the same with that which Corneille practised in his time ; if, like that of Terence, it went no farther than to draw the common portraits of simple nature, and show us fathers, sons, and rivals, notwithstanding the uniformity, which would always prevail as in the plays of Terence, and probably in those of Menander, whom he imitated in his four first pieces, there would always be a resource found either in variety of incidents, like those of the Spaniards, or in the repetition of the same characters in the way of Terence ; but the case is now very different, the public calls for new characters and nothing else. Multiplicity of accidents, and the laborious contrivance of an intrigue, are not now allowed to shelter a weak genius that would find great inconveniences in that way of writing. Nor does it suit the taste of comedy, which requires an air less constrained, and such freedom and ease of manners, as admits nothing of the romantic. She leaves all the pomp of sudden events to the novels, or little romances, which were the diversion of the last age. She allows nothing but a succession of characters resembling nature, and falling in without any apparent contrivance. Racine has likewise taught us to give to tragedy the same simplicity of air and action ; he has endeavoured to disentangle it from that great number of incidents, which made it rather a study than diversion to the audience, and which show the poet not so much to abound in invention, as to be deficient in taste. But, notwithstanding all that he has done, or that we can do, to make it simple, it will always have the advantage over
-comedy in the number of its subjects, because it admits more variety of situations and events, which give variety and novelty to the characters. A miser, copied after nature, will always be the miser of Plautus or Moliere ; but a Nero, or a prince like Nero, will not always be the hero of Racine. Comedy admits of so little intrigue, that the miser cannot be shown in any such position as will make his picture new; but the great events of tragedy may put Nero in such circunstances as to make him wholly another character.
But, in the second place, over and above the subjects, may we not say something concerning the final purpose of comedy and tragedy ? The purpose of the one is to divert, and the other to move ; and of these two, which is the easier ? To go to the bottom of those purposes ; to move is to strike those strings of the heart which are most natural, terror and pity ; to divert is to make one laugh, a thing which indeed is natural enough, but more delicate. The gentleman and the rustic have both sensibility and tenderness of heart, perhaps in greater or less degree ; but as they are men alike, the heart is moved by the same touches. They both love likewise to send their thoughts abroad, and to expand themselves in merriment ; but the springs which must be touched for this purpose, are not the same in the gentleman as in the rustic. The passions depend on nature, and merriment upon education. The clown will laugh at a waggery, and the gentleman only at a stroke of delicate conceit. The spectators of a tragedy, if they have but a little knowledge, are almost all on a level ; but with respect to comedy, we have three classes, if not more, the