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This pleasure we have in the Æneid. It is not so pleasant, as in the Iliad, to connect effects by their common cause; for such connexion forces the mind to a continual retrospect: looking back is like walking backward.
Homer's plan is still more defective; the events described are but imperfectly connected with the wrath of Achilles, their cause: his wrath did not exert itself in action; and the misfortunes of his countrymen were but negatively the effects of his wrath, by depriving them of his assistance.
If unity of action be a capital beauty in a fable imitative of human affairs, a plurality of unconnected fables must be a capital deformity. For the sake of variety, we indulge an under-plot that is connected with the principal; but two unconnected events are extremely unpleasant, even where the same actors are engaged in both. Ariosto is quite licentious in that particular: he carries on at the same time a plurality of unconnected stories. His only excuse is, that his plan is perfectly well adjusted to his subject; for every thing in the Orlando Furioso is wild and extravagant.
Though to state facts in the order of time is natural, that order may be varied, for the sake of conspicuous beauties. If a noted story, cold and simple in its first movements, be made the subject of an epic poem, the reader may be hurried into the heat of action, reserving the preliminaries for a conversation piece, if necessary; and that method has a peculiar beauty from being dramatic. But a privilege that deviates from nature ought to be sparingly indulged; and yet romance writers make no difficulty of presenting to the reader, without preparation, unknown persons engaged in some arduous adventure equally unknown. In Cassandra, two personages, who afterwards are discovered to be the heroes of the fable, start up completely armed upon the banks of the Euphrates, and engage in a single combat.
A play analyzed, is a chain of connected facts, of which each scene makes a link. Each scene, accordingly, ought to produce some incident relative to the catastrophe or ultimate event, by advancing or retarding it. A scene that produceth no incident, and for that reason may be termed barren, ought not to be indulged, because it breaks the unity of action: a barren scene can never be entitled to a place, because the chain is complete without it. How successfully is this done by Shakspeare! in whose works there is not to be found a single barren scene.
All the facts in an historical fable ought to have a mutual connexion, by their common relation to the grand event or catastrophe; and this relation, in which the unity of action consists, is equally essential to epic and dramatic compositions.
The mind is satisfied with slighter unity in a picture than in a poem; because the perceptions of the former are more lively than the ideas of the latter. In Hogarth's Enraged Musician, we have a collection of every grating sound in nature, without any mutual connexion except that of place. But the horror they give to the delicate ear of an Italian fiddler, who is represented almost in convulsions, bestows unity upon the piece, with which the mind is satisfied.
How far the unities of time and of place are essential, is a question of greater intricacy. These unities were observed in the Greek and Roman theatres; and they are inculcated by the French and some English critics, as essential to every dramatic composition.,
The unities of place and time are not, by the most rigid critics, required in a narrative poem: because, if it pretend to copy nature, these unities would be absurd; real events are seldom confined within narrow limits either of place or of time. And yet we can follow history, or an historical fable, through all its changes, with the greatest facility : we never once think of measuring the real time by what is taken in
THE THREE UNITIES.
reading ; nor of forming any connexion between the place of action and that which we occupy.
The drama differs so far from the epic, as to admity different rules. An historical fable, intended for reading solely, is under no limitation of time nor of place, more than a genuine history; but that a dramatic composition cannot be accurately represented, unless it be limited, as its representation is, to one place and to a few hours; and therefore that it can admit no fable but what has these properties; because it would be absurd to compose a piece for representàtion that cannot be justly represented.” This argument has at least a plausible appearance; and yet one is apt to suspect some fallacy, considering that no critic, however strict, has ventured to confine the unities of place and of time within so narrow bounds.
A view of the Grecian drama, compared with our own, may perhaps relieve us from this dilemma: if they be differently constructed, as shall be made evident, it is possible that the foregoing reasoning may not be equally applicable to both. I'his is an article that, with relation to the present subject, has not been examined by any writer.
All authors agree, that tragedy in Greece was derived from the hymns in praise of Bacchus, which were sung in parts of a chorus. Thespis, to relieve the singers, introduced one actor; whose province it was to explain the subject of the song, and who represented one or other personage. Æschylus, introducing a second actor, formed the dialogue, by which the performance became dramatic; the actors were multiplied when the subject represented made it necessary. But still, the chorus, which gave a beginning to tragedy, was considered as an essential part. The first scene, generally, unfolds the preliminary circumstances that lead to the grand event; and this scene is by Aristotle termed the prologue. In the second scene, where the action properly begins, the chorus is introduced, which
Good was tomewhat like the Passion Play
as originally, continues upon the stage during the whole performance: the chorus frequently makes one in the dialogue; and when the dialogue happens to be suspended, the chorus, during the interval, is employed in singing. Sophocles adheres to this plan religiously. Euripides is not altogether so correct. * In some of his pieces, it becomes necessary to remove the chorus for a little time. But when that unusual step is risked, matters are so ordered as not to interrupt the representation : the chorus never leave the stage of their own accord, but at the command of some principal personage, who constantly waits their return.
Thus the Grecian drama is a continued representation without interruption. Hence the unities of place and of time were strictly observed in the Greek tragedies; which is made necessary by the constitution of their drama, for it is absurd to compose a tragedy that cannot be justly represented.
Modern critics, who for our drama pretend to establish rules founded on the practice of the Greeks, are guilty of an egregious blunder. The unities of place and of time were in Greece a matter of necessity, not of choice; and if we submit to such fetters, it must be from choice, not necessity. This will be evident upon taking a view of the constitution of our drama, which differs widely from that of Greece; whether more or less perfect is a different point, to be handled afterward. By dropping the chorus, opportunity is afforded to divide the representation by intervals of time, during which the stage is evacuated, and the spectacle suspended. This qualifies our drama for subjects spread through a wide space both of time and of place: the time supposed to pass during the suspension of the representation, is not measured by the time of suspension; and any place may be supposed when the representation is renewed, with as much facility as when it commenced: by which means, many subjects can be justly represented in our theatres, that were excluded from those of ancient Greece. This
doctrine may be illustrated, by comparing a modern play to a set of historical pictures; let us suppose them,five in number, and the resemblance will be complete. Each of the pictures resembles an act in one of our plays; there must necessarily be the strictest unity of place and of time in each picture; and the same necessity requires these two unities during each act of a play, because during an act there is no. interruption in the spectacle. Now, when we view in succession a number of such historical pictures, let it be, for example, the history of Alexander by Le Brun, we have no difficulty to conceive, that months or years have passed between the events exhibited in two different pictures, though the interruption is imperceptible in passing our eye from the one to the other; and we have as little difficulty to conceive a change of place, however great. In which view, there is truly no difference between five acts of a modern play, and five such pictures. Where the representation is suspended, we can with the greatest facility suppose any length of time or any change of place: the spectator, it is true, may be conscious that the real time and place are not the same with what are employed in the representation : but this is a work of reflection; and by the same reflection he may also be conscious that Garrick is not king Lear, that the play-house is not Dover cliffs, nor the noise he hears thunder and lightning. In a word, after an interruption of the representation, it is no more difficult for a spectator to imagine a new place, or a different time, than at the commencement of the play to imagine himself at Rome, or in a period of time two thousand years back. And indeed, it is abundantly ridiculous, that a critic, who is willing to hold candle-light for sun-shine, and some painted canvases for a palace or a prison, should be so scrupulous about admitting any latitude of place or of time in the fable, beyond what is necessary in the representation.
There are some effects of great latitude in time that