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Coq. Quote not your coxcombly poets, I entreat; they are nearly as insufferable as the crabbed philosophers themselves; wretches whom the world has long been wise enough to despise.
Mer. I shall say no more. But come, fair lady, the die is cast, we must descend to Elysium without delay; we must hasten to the regions of bliss.
Coq. To the regions of bliss! O, Mr. Mercury, with all my heart; quickly, instantly, lead the way.
SCENE THE ELYSIAN FIELDS.
SCARRON and LA FONTAINE.
Scar. HA! Yonder is that strange, that incomprehensible, creature, La Fontaine.* I must have a little conversation with him. What, ho! Monsieur le Faiseur d'Oreilles, for so I think I may call you, from the great attention you commanded by your writings.
La Font. Scarron! good morrow;-but this is a compliment I never expected from you.
Scar. Prithee, why so? Do you suppose me insensible to the claims of genius and merit?
This is supposed to allude to the character of La Fontaine as drawn by M. de la Bruyère—“Quoi dans le monde de plus incompréhensible? Un homme paraît grossier, lourd, stupide; il ne sait pas parler, n'y raconter ce qu'il vient de voir; s'il se met à écrire, c'est le modèle des bons contes; il fait parler les animaux, les pierres, tout ce qui ne parle point: ce n'est que légèreté, qu'élegance, que beau naturel, et que délicatesse, dans ses ouvrages."
See a tale of La Fontaine's, so entitled.
La Font. No;-but were we not contemporaries? And, as we both affected the humorous in our writings, consequently rivals? It is, therefore, highly natural that we should regard each other with an envious and suspicious eye.
Scar. True, it might be natural on earth, indeed. But you should consider, that we are now in the Elysian Fields.
La Font. Here, then, you imagine, we are no longer tormented by evil passions. This, says the poet, is a place where
Envy no more her snaky crest shall rear ;
and so say you. But you were a good deal persecuted in the upper world. Your humour, if I remember right, which shone so conspicuously in most of your performances, was never thoroughly acknowledged till you had descended to the shades.
Scar. I lost much of the reputation I had justly acquired in novel-writing, by attempting comedy, for which I was almost wholly unfit.
La Font. Your comedy, no doubt, was ill adapted to the nice and delicate taste of our countrymen, the French. You imitated Molière, but it was in his most faulty and extravagant manner.
Dans le sac, ridicule où Scapin s'envelope,
Je ne reconnais plus l'auteur du Misanthrope,
says the satirist. Yet performances resembling the Fourberies de Scapin were the favourites of Scarron: the models he closely and attentively studied.
Scar. You, too, were a writer of comedy; and, though possessed of a truly comic genius, as is sufficiently discoverable in your fables and tales, had never, I think, the good fortune to succeed in the drama.
La Font. I was equally unsuccessful with yourself. To speak, however, ingenuously, we met the fate we had well deserved. Our dramas are plat and fade in a
The faux plaisant, in the following lines, is I believe intended to point at us
J'aime sur le théâtre un agréable auteur,
Qui, sans se diffamer aux yeux du spectateur,
Qu'il s'en aille, s'il veut, sur deux tréteaux monté,
Aux laquais assemblés, jouer ses mascarades.
Scar. Admirable ! The lines, I think, are from Boileau's Art of Poetry: a performance which I am inclined to consider, with a celebrated critic, as the best of the kind that has yet appeared.
La Font. Yes, and the rules laid down in it have been strictly attended to by the French. The ears of our countrymen are no longer offended by the saletés, the équivoques grossières, so justly complained of: such expedients our authors have left entirely to the English farce-writer.
Scar. Aye, and the English farce-writer has fully availed himself of them. He seems to consider them as admirable improvements in his art: capital embellishments to his work.
La Font. He does; and I am truly sorry to find it so. There cannot be a greater proof of the degeneracy of the times than in the toleration of loose and immoral performances on the stage. The moral health of the people should be the primary consideration of the magistrate; and, if he is desirous of seeing that health prevail, he will be attentive to the means of preserving it. In a word, nothing can be more ridiculous than to expect a nation to be virtuous, while you are formally presenting it with lessons in vice.
Scar. Right. It is, however, a matter that the magistrate seems to be little solicitous about. But whether this arises from indolence or from the mistaken notion
that "private vices are public benefits," I cannot pretend to say.
La Font. The case is this: he thinks he sufficiently discharges his duty in enforcing the laws: but it is an undoubted truth, that good government consists not in the punishing of crimes with severity, but in using the most effectual means for the preventing them:-a truth, which is set forth and maintained with considerable ability by the Abbé Beccaria, in his truly valuable publication, entitled Dei dilletti e delle pene. But to return to the theatre. It is by no means sufficient that we are amused within its walls. It is a place to which we should occasionally repair for instruction. In fine, the stage was originally intended to be a school of morality, whereas it is now a nursery for folly, foppery, and vice.
Scar. Dramatic writers will tell you, however, that, in exhibiting the folly and foppery you are speaking of, they render it generally odious and detested.
La Font. It is impossible that such should be the effect of their labours. You must surely have observed, that the fine gentleman of the comedy, the seducer and betrayer of innocence, is always the favourite and predominant character. After having run the race of licentiousness and passion, after having disturbed the peace and good order of families, and for which, among savages, he would suffer death,-you will find, that he is too often dismissed to happiness, and with the most amiable woman that can be found.
Scar. A gross and unpardonable fault. It is from attending such representations that many females have thrown themselves into the arms of the libertine and debauchee. It is in theatres that they have learned the absurd and pernicious maxim, that "the best husband is to be expected in the reformed rake.”
La Font. A truly pernicious maxim, indeed! yet a favourite one with many of the fair sex.
See Mandeville's Fable of the Bees.
Scar. It is: and, till wholly discarded from comedies and romances, it will undoubtedly continue.
La Font. The reform should begin in the theatre. This, you may remember, has been attempted. But, when a moral performance has made its appearance, the beaux esprits, by ridiculing it, under the denomination of comédie larmoyante, have presently driven it from the stage.
Scar. Wit and humour are powerful weapons. A stroke of pleasantry has frequently occasioned the failure of a play. "La reine boit!" you may remember, contributed more towards the downfall of Voltaire's Mariamne,* than all the criticisms which were written on it.
La Font. Alas! how uncertain and fleeting is the reputation of the man of letters—
A breath destroys him, as a breath had rais'd!
Scar. And yet how very many are catching at the "bubble reputation;" a bubble which, perhaps, vanishes in the very moment that each one thinks he holds it securely in his grasp.
La Font. True :—though it is not always reputation alone that the candidate in question has in view. of whom it may be said,
Vivit siliquis et pane secundo,
looks for something more than empty praise:
Scar. Yes, wealth would, no doubt, be equally acceptable to him.
La Font. Not, however, unless it can be procured with honour to himself: for miserum est alienâ vivere quadra. To such a situation the man of spirit will never submit.
“L'auteur faisait mourir Mariamne par le poison: et on le lui donnait sur le théâtre. C'était vers le temps des rois que la pièce fut jouée. Un petit maître dans le parterre, voyant donner la coupe empoisonné à cette princesse, s'avisa de crier : La reine boit.' Tous les François se mirent à rire, et la pièce ne fut point achevée."-ADV. TO MARIAMNE.