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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsLetters On England - LETTER XIX - ON COMEDY
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Letters On England - LETTER XIX - ON COMEDY Post by :senshai Category :Nonfictions Author :Voltaire Date :January 2011 Read :547

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Letters On England - LETTER XIX - ON COMEDY

I am surprised that the judicious and ingenious Mr. de Muralt, who
has published some letters on the English and French nations, should
have confined himself; in treating of comedy, merely to censure
Shadwell the comic writer. This author was had in pretty great
contempt in Mr. de Muralt's time, and was not the poet of the polite
part of the nation. His dramatic pieces, which pleased some time in
acting, were despised by all persons of taste, and might be compared
to many plays which I have seen in France, that drew crowds to the
play-house, at the same time that they were intolerable to read; and
of which it might be said, that the whole city of Paris exploded
them, and yet all flocked to see them represented on the stage.
Methinks Mr. de Muralt should have mentioned an excellent comic
writer (living when he was in England), I mean Mr. Wycherley, who
was a long time known publicly to be happy in the good graces of the
most celebrated mistress of King Charles II. This gentleman, who
passed his life among persons of the highest distinction, was
perfectly well acquainted with their lives and their follies, and
painted them with the strongest pencil, and in the truest colours.
He has drawn a misanthrope or man-hater, in imitation of that of
Moliere. All Wycherley's strokes are stronger and bolder than those
of our misanthrope, but then they are less delicate, and the rules
of decorum are not so well observed in this play. The English
writer has corrected the only defect that is in Moliere's comedy,
the thinness of the plot, which also is so disposed that the
characters in it do not enough raise our concern. The English
comedy affects us, and the contrivance of the plot is very
ingenious, but at the same time it is too bold for the French
manners. The fable is this:- A captain of a man-of-war, who is very
brave, open-hearted, and inflamed with a spirit of contempt for all
mankind, has a prudent, sincere friend, whom he yet is suspicious
of; and a mistress that loves him with the utmost excess of passion.
The captain so far from returning her love, will not even condescend
to look upon her, but confides entirely in a false friend, who is
the most worthless wretch living. At the same time he has given his
heart to a creature, who is the greatest coquette and the most
perfidious of her sex, and he is so credulous as to be confident she
is a Penelope, and his false friend a Cato. He embarks on board his
ship in order to go and fight the Dutch, having left all his money,
his jewels, and everything he had in the world to this virtuous
creature, whom at the same time he recommends to the care of his
supposed faithful friend. Nevertheless the real man of honour, whom
he suspects so unaccountably, goes on board the ship with him, and
the mistress, on whom he would not bestow so much as one glance,
disguises herself in the habit of a page, and is with him the whole
voyage, without his once knowing that she is of a sex different from
that she attempts to pass for, which, by the way, is not over
natural.

The captain having blown up his own ship in an engagement, returns
to England abandoned and undone, accompanied by his page and his
friend, without knowing the friendship of the one or the tender
passion of the other. Immediately he goes to the jewel among women,
who he expected had preserved her fidelity to him and the treasure
he had left in her hands. He meets with her indeed, but married to
the honest knave in whom he had reposed so much confidence, and
finds she had acted as treacherously with regard to the casket he
had entrusted her with. The captain can scarce think it possible
that a woman of virtue and honour can act so vile a part; but to
convince him still more of the reality of it, this very worthy lady
falls in love with the little page, and will force him to her
embraces. But as it is requisite justice should be done, and that
in a dramatic piece virtue ought to be rewarded and vice punished,
it is at last found that the captain takes his page's place, and
lies with his faithless mistress, cuckolds his treacherous friend,
thrusts his sword through his body, recovers his casket, and marries
his page. You will observe that this play is also larded with a
petulant, litigious old woman (a relation of the captain), who is
the most comical character that was ever brought upon the stage.

Wycherley has also copied from Moliere another play, of as singular
and bold a cast, which is a kind of Ecole des Femmes, or, School for
Married Women.

The principal character in this comedy is one Homer, a sly fortune
hunter, and the terror of all the City husbands. This fellow, in
order to play a surer game, causes a report to be spread, that in
his last illness, the surgeons had found it necessary to have him
made a eunuch. Upon his appearing in this noble character, all the
husbands in town flock to him with their wives, and now poor Homer
is only puzzled about his choice. However, he gives the preference
particularly to a little female peasant, a very harmless, innocent
creature, who enjoys a fine flush of health, and cuckolds her
husband with a simplicity that has infinitely more merit than the
witty malice of the most experienced ladies. This play cannot
indeed be called the school of good morals, but it is certainly the
school of wit and true humour.

Sir John Vanbrugh has written several comedies, which are more
humorous than those of Mr. Wycherley, but not so ingenious. Sir
John was a man of pleasure, and likewise a poet and an architect.
The general opinion is, that he is as sprightly in his writings as
he is heavy in his buildings. It is he who raised the famous Castle
of Blenheim, a ponderous and lasting monument of our unfortunate
Battle of Hochstet. Were the apartments but as spacious as the
walls are thick, this castle would be commodious enough. Some wag,
in an epitaph he made on Sir John Vanbrugh, has these lines:-


"Earth lie light on him, for he
Laid many a heavy load on thee."


Sir John having taken a tour into France before the glorious war
that broke out in 1701, was thrown into the Bastille, and detained
there for some time, without being ever able to discover the motive
which had prompted our ministry to indulge him with this mark of
their distinction. He wrote a comedy during his confinement; and a
circumstance which appears to me very extraordinary is, that we
don't meet with so much as a single satirical stroke against the
country in which he had been so injuriously treated.

The late Mr. Congreve raised the glory of comedy to a greater height
than any English writer before or since his time. He wrote only a
few plays, but they are all excellent in their kind. The laws of
the drama are strictly observed in them; they abound with characters
all which are shadowed with the utmost delicacy, and we don't meet
with so much as one low or coarse jest. The language is everywhere
that of men of honour, but their actions are those of knaves--a
proof that he was perfectly well acquainted with human nature, and
frequented what we call polite company. He was infirm and come to
the verge of life when I knew him. Mr. Congreve had one defect,
which was his entertaining too mean an idea of his first profession
(that of a writer), though it was to this he owed his fame and
fortune. He spoke of his works as of trifles that were beneath him;
and hinted to me, in our first conversation, that I should visit him
upon no other footing than that of a gentleman who led a life of
plainness and simplicity. I answered, that had he been so
unfortunate as to be a mere gentleman, I should never have come to
see him; and I was very much disgusted at so unseasonable a piece of
vanity.

Mr. Congreve's comedies are the most witty and regular, those of Sir
John Vanbrugh most gay and humorous, and those of Mr. Wycherley have
the greatest force and spirit. It may be proper to observe that
these fine geniuses never spoke disadvantageously of Moliere; and
that none but the contemptible writers among the English have
endeavoured to lessen the character of that great comic poet. Such
Italian musicians as despise Lully are themselves persons of no
character or ability; but a Buononcini esteems that great artist,
and does justice to his merit.

The English have some other good comic writers living, such as Sir
Richard Steele and Mr. Cibber, who is an excellent player, and also
Poet Laureate--a title which, how ridiculous soever it may be
thought, is yet worth a thousand crowns a year (besides some
considerable privileges) to the person who enjoys it. Our
illustrious Corneille had not so much.

To conclude. Don't desire me to descend to particulars with regard
to these English comedies, which I am so fond of applauding; nor to
give you a single smart saying or humorous stroke from Wycherley or
Congreve. We don't laugh in rending a translation. If you have a
mind to understand the English comedy, the only way to do this will
be for you to go to England, to spend three years in London, to make
yourself master of the English tongue, and to frequent the playhouse
every night. I receive but little pleasure from the perusal of
Aristophanes and Plautus, and for this reason, because I am neither
a Greek nor a Roman. The delicacy of the humour, the allusion, the
a propos--all these are lost to a foreigner.

But it is different with respect to tragedy, this treating only of
exalted passions and heroical follies, which the antiquated errors
of fable or history have made sacred. OEdipus, Electra, and such-
like characters, may with as much propriety be treated of by the
Spaniards, the English, or us, as by the Greeks. But true comedy is
the speaking picture of the follies and ridiculous foibles of a
nation; so that he only is able to judge of the painting who is
perfectly acquainted with the people it represents.

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