Letter 32


1 District
No. 186

[Postmark 10 Jan 1831]

MY DEAR KELSALL,–Another winter in Wurzburg: I do not kno[w] when I shall summon courage enough to return to your deuced dear Island. You might have written to me before this as you have now matter enough in the Gun-Powder-Plot, of which our literary periodicals speak so mysteriously that I am totally at a loss whether it be a merry political hoax, of which the Germans have as yet no conception, or a serious Irelandiad: and then the sixpenny old dramatists.

I have some idea of raising my ghost (in the never ending D’s J.B.) at the close of the 5th act, and amalgamating the last scene of the third with the last of the 5th the 1st act must then be cut in two wh is practicable enough–but then I am at a loss for business and a good blow at the end of the 3rd. And a play in four acts is a cripple. Either three or 5.

In the first the deed must be committed the consequences of wh employ the following: in the second a reaction attempted and a second seed sown for ripening in the after-time: in the third, which needs not to be the most powerful as I once thought, the storm gathers, doubts rise, or the termination wh appears to be at hand is intercepted by some bold and unexpected invention, a new event the developement of a character, hitherto obscure, a new resolve &c gives a new turn to the aspect of the future: in the fourth all is consummated, the truth is cleared up, the final determination taken, the step of Nemesis is heard: and in the fifth the atonement follows.

The first, fourth and fifth must be most attractive and interesting from the confliction of passions and the events occasioned by them: the 2 is a pause for retrospection, anticipation; in the third is rather the struggle between the will of man and the moral law of necessity wh awaits inevitably his past actions–the pivot of all tragedy. I have really begun a little to alter the ill-fated play in question. What do you say to a drinking song like this at the beginning of the present 2nd act? I am not in the least satisfied with it?–On second thoughts I will not bore you with it–indeed it is utterly useless to send you anything, for you always forget to criticize, and abuse properly wh it is the duty of every friend to do as long as the confided piece remains in M.S. Otherwise you shd have observed how stupid and superfluous almost all the 2nd act of J B is how commonplace the 2nd bridal song in the 4th &c &c ad infinitum.

You may give me credit for carelessness, if you will not for want of superabundant vanity (a spice is necessary & self-esteem the wise it call); it is 8 years since I have published anything, & how long will it be before I am again under the press? heaven knows–I think the reading populace ought to be much obliged to me for my forbearance: ’tis a pity that other young rhyming gents are not equally economical of their tediousness, Campbell is really a good example–or would be but I fear his poverty & not his will consented. Leopold Schefer, a good novellist, proposes, for the purpose of resuscitating the drama to return to the custom of the Greeks, i.e. to keep all Theatres closed through the greater part of the year and to open them during a few holiday-weeks once in 3 years, I think at Easter, Christmas &c, for the representation of plays for a prize–a good chimæra.

Many things are quite absurd and destructive of all poetry in arrangements wh appear not of the slightest consequence. I am convinced that playbills for instance are very pernicious; one should never know the actors names and private circumstances, the spectators would then be compelled to identify them with their dramatic characters, the interest wd be much purer and undivided, the illusion carried as far as it can & ought to be–how can people enter deeply into the spirit of a tragedy for instance–in comedy it is a matter of less consequence, whose question is, how do you like Kean to-night? Is not Claremont delightful in Rosenkranz? etc.–Othello & Richard & Rosenkranz are here obliged to play Claremont & Kean instead of the reverse.

The actor on the other hand deprived of his private name & existence must feel more convinced of the reality of his 5-act life, would be liberated from the shackles of timidity & the temptations of individual vanity, wd [grow] careless about his creditors & be unable to try & please the lady’s as Mr. — with the handsome leg &c. wink to his friends in the pit &c &c. To whet curiosity and occasion astonishment is not the least important object of the dramatist; the actors might have learned from Scott that anonymous mysteriousness is one of the most effective arts for this purpose–A distant idea of the use of this concealment probably caused the custom observed in the announcement of a new play–principal characters by Messrs Doe & Roe–but the names of the people in the drama ought to be printed with the necessary key [father, son &c] not those of the gentleman who lodges at the pastry cooks, wears the threadbare coat, &c.

The Greeks (from whom we can learn much if we understand their motives–) were in possession of this secret, and this is the real meaning of their masks, wh. have so much bothered the critics; and these were doubly useful, they deceived to a certain degree not only the spectator, but also the actor with the semblance of an heroic and unknown person, and prevented the annoying familiarity of the people on the stage. Of course I do not wish to see these sort of masks on our stage–(our passionate drama renders them impossible–though it might be an interesting experiment to try them once in an adaptation of Agamemnon, the Bacchæ, Antigone or Electra–to conclude with the satyric Drama–the Cyclops:) it is only to be lamented that we have no other means of completely disguising our actors and making Richard, Hamlet, Macbeth–as absolutely distinct and independent individuals–as Œdipus & Orestes must have been–the Athenians wd I am sure have pelted their fellow citizen and neighbour as the pathetic hobbling, ulcerous Philoctetes of the stage with onions, only a conviction of his reality could have reconciled their frivolous imagination with him or subdued them to compassion–and Agamemnon or Hercules unmasked would have been saluted with their
nicknames from all sides.

Othello’s colour is a sort of mask, & this is a reason perhaps why Shak: has given him so much less ideal language and more simple household truth than his other characters, the whole play is barer of imagery than any other of his, except the musicians with their silver sound there is no conductor for laughter from the tragic characters; Sh: seems really to intend more illusion than elsewhere, & is not the purpose gained?

The witches, Peter & the nurse, the gravediggers & Polonius, in a less degree Kent & Lear’s Fool, are all more or less purposely destructive of the tragic illusion–give time to recover from the surprize wh the course of the events produce[s]: their good is that they give the hearer to understand that the poet is not absolutely in earnest with his deaths & horrors & leaves it to them to be affected with them or not as they think proper, and secondly, that the audience, as well as every body, is much less inclined to laugh at & deride the gravity of a person, with whom his wit & satire has compelled them to laugh–besides that the change is grounded on the law of oscillation wh pervades all physical and moral nature–sleeping and waking (merriment & tears), sin & repentance, life & death, wh all depend & are consequent on one another.

So much for my dramaturgic ideas on playbills, I do not know that any one else has fallen on them–what do you think of them as theory? The pause between the acts–wh the Greeks and Sh: I believe did not allow–is another dangerous innovation: the thread of events is interrupted, one talks to one’s neighbour, hears news and forgets the fictitious in the real events, the state of mind produced by the opening is altered, and as soon as we are with difficulty brought back to the track over wh the poet wd lead us another interruption undoes all again. The actors in the meantime chat behind the scenes, Cordelia flirts with her papa, Arthur makes King John a pigtail, Constance comforts herself with a cup of tea, Juliet dances with the dead Mercutio and all such things occur wh breed familiarity & carelessness and damp the excited imagination, cool the ardour of the players.

These & some other apparently trifling things have, I am convinced done the drama much more harm, rendered it less poetical, and spoiled the audience & performers, than the innocent dogs, & horses, who act always better than the bipeds & wh are as allowable as painted houses &c. Agamemnon’s chariot was drawn by real horses I doubt not, Shakespeare made a good use of his friend’s dog who played Lance &c &c. I acknowledge that licences, patents, theatrical censure &c have been far more noxious; the stage must be as free as the press before anything very good comes again. But these things wh I point out can easily be removed, others probably not before the abolition of tithes, corn bill &c.

If parliament had nothing to do of greater consequence, Ld Melbourne who dabbled in Drury lane theatricals might do something for us & I wish some one wd publicly remind him of the subject. Tiecks continuation of Dichterleben is a delightful explanation of Shakespeares life & sonnets, I suppose it is already translated somewhere: it appeared in his Novellenkranz Taschenbuch Aug. 1831.

Adieu & answer & send me the song and death scene you spoke of; you are lazy enough & cannot complain of me unless you improve. I wish you wd tell me what things of Tiecks are translated as I should wish to introduce him to the English as he deserves. I think he wd be & know he ought to be much more relished than Goethe who after all is only a name in England–it is a confounded bore & baulked me much that I have no connection with any publisher or journalist in England–I shd then have some stimulus &c–do some good, now I can do nothing–

I leave Wurzburg in March: destination uncertain.

Addressed to

[Gosse, 1894]