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FIRST COMEDY: LOVE IN SEVERAL MASQUES."- THE
WHEN Fielding made his appearance as a dramatist, the comedy of artificial life had degenerated into a representation of the world's worst habits, thoughts, and sentiments. In the course of the preceding half-century, Wycherley, Congreve, Farquhar, and Vanbrugh, had exhausted all the arts which could render profligacy seductive or amusing; and their productions still kept possession of the stage, and influenced the prevailing taste. The lively play of an unbridled wit, a succession of disreputable intrigues, and a contempt for every moral and social obligation, were amongst the necessary ingredients of this species of entertainment; and with these stimulants dramatic authors had long deluged the town. At such a period, the young comic dramatist could not expect to achieve very high things. The ordinary incidents of fashionable profligacy, and the popular phrases of gallantry, were well-nigh "used up." Though, in order to secure the approbation of the higher circles, the manager was constrained to set before them a dainty dish of immorality, it was a dish without novelty or piquancy. Persons of quality who attended the play expected of course to see the marriage-tie turned into a jest; but that jest, though it might have been considered a good one at first, had become rather stale. The coarse obscenity of the comedies of the Restoration was, indeed, no longer tolerated in all its grossness; yet the tone of dramatic morality was little, if at all, improved. The theatres were still shunned by pure-minded women and prudent men,
and the success of a comedy depended, in a great degree, on the audacity with which it outraged the sanctity of domestic ties and moral obligations.
Fielding's first effort had the disadvantage of succeeding one of the best productions of this era. The "Provoked Husband," commenced by Vanbrugh and finished by Cibber (one of the few comedies of that period which can be still read or listened to by decent people), had been just produced with great success, having accomplished "a run" of twenty-eight nights. This success is said to have been principally owing to the acting of Mrs. Oldfield. In the part of Lady Townley, this clever and charming actress carried the town by storm. It is related by Macklin that she appeared to rush upon the stage in the full consciousness of beauty, youth, and talent; and when Wilks, the actor who performed the part of Lord Townley, uttered in the first scene the word "prodigious," the audience instinctively seized on the opportunity of applying the expression by shouts of approbation to the accomplished actress. Although during her performance of Lady Townley, Mrs. Oldfield contracted an indisposition, brought on by fatigue and excitement, she consented to personate one of the principal characters in young Fielding's comedy, and thus ensured it a moderate success.1
(1) Mrs. Oldfield was the daughter of an officer in the army, who leaving her entirely unprovided for, she was brought up by an aunt, who kept the Mitre Tavern, in St. James's Street. It was here that Farquhar, the dramatist, overheard her one day reading some passages behind the bar from "The Scornful Lady" of Beaumont and Fletcher. He was struck with her graceful elocution, and through his commendation, joined to that of Vanbrugh, she obtained an engagement at Drury Lane, at 15s. a week. Ultimately she succeeded the famous Mrs. Verbruggen as the leading comic actress of the theatre. Her wit and cleverness procured her admission to every society. Notwithstanding some stains upon her character, she was received at Court, and a bon-mot of hers, addressed to the Princess of Wales, is much celebrated. The princess observed to her one day that it was reported that she and General Churchill were married: "So it is said, your royal highness," replied the actress, "but we have not owned it yet." In his preface to the "Provoked Husband," Colley Cibber writes of her thus :-" She was in stature just rising to that height when the graceful can only begin to show itself; of a lively aspect, and a command
"Love in several Masques" was first acted in the month of February, 1728,' when the author had not attained his twenty-first year. This was certainly a very carly period of life for the production of even a passable comedy:-a species of composition which would seem to require on the part of the author considerable knowledge of the world, and familiarity with its colloquial phraseology. Yet it is worthy of remark that Fielding's is not the only instance in which the hardihood of youth has been displayed by a precocious dalliance with the comic muse. Congreve must have been but a beardless boy when he wrote "The Old Bachelor;" for that comedy was first acted in 1693, when he was twenty-one years of age; and, in his defence against the attacks of Collier, he asserts that "it was written, as several know, some years before it was acted!" Wycherley, according to his own account, wrote his comedy of "Love in a Wood" at nineteen, and "The Plain Dealer" at twenty-five; although critical sagacity has seen reason to doubt the perfect accuracy of the statement.2 Farquhar's first comedy, also, was written and acted before he was twenty years old, and his last ("The Recruiting Officer") before he was thirty.
Fielding keenly felt the disadvantageous circumstances under which he made his first bow to the public. The production of a new comedy was in itself a bold adventure
in her mien that, like the principal figure in the finest paintings, first seizes and longest delights the eye of the spectator. Her voice was sweet, strong, piercing, and melodious; her pronunciation voluble, distinct, and musical; and her emphasis always placed where the spirit of the sense demanded it."
(1) Until the 24th year of the reign of George II. the Julian or Old Style prevailed in England, under which system the legal year commenced on the 25th of March. Fielding's first comedy is thus generally said to have been produced in 1727.
(2) See Macaulay's "Essay on the Comic Dramatists of the Restoration." After speaking of the disadvantages under which his first comedy was produced, Fielding adds, in the preface: "These were difficulties which seemed rather to require the superior force of a Wycherley, or Congreve, than of a raw and inexperienced pen; for I believe I may boast that none ever appeared so early on the stage."
for so young an author; but the experiment became still more hazardous when it succeeded the last and ablest work of a veteran dramatist. In his prologue, the following graceful allusion is made to this circumstance:—
"As when a Raphael's masterpiece has been
In style and sentiment the comedy of "Love in several Masques" was obviously modelled on the productions of Congreve. But Fielding lacked the judgment and brilliancy of that distinguished wit; whilst he possessed little skill in the construction and development of his fable, to compensate for any defects in the dialogue. His dramatis persona were for the most part without individuality, and his scenes thrown off without art, order, or method. Still, with all its defects, the first work of Henry Fielding is not without characteristic excellences, and a brief specimen of its nervous dialogue may not be unacceptable. The second act opens with a dialogue between the gay widow, Lady Matchless, and her bosom friend Vermilia; in which her satirical ladyship thus describes the horde of suitors who crowd her drawing-room :
Vermilia. You have opportunities enough of revenge, and objects enough to execute it upon; for, I think, you have as many slaves in your assemblies as the French king in his galleys.
Lady Matchless. Why, really, I sometimes look on my drawingroom as a little parliament of fools, to which every different body sends its representatives. Beaux of all sorts. The courtly lord, who addresses me with a formal, well-bred dissimulation. The airy Sir Plume, who always walks in the minuet step, and converses in recitativo.
Vermilia. And is a Narcissus in everything but beauty.
Lady Matchless. Then the robust warrior, who proceeds by way of storm or siege. The lawyer, who attacks me, as he would a jury, with a cringe, and a lie at the tip of his tongue. The cit, who would
cheat me by way of bargain and sale. And your settling country esquire, who would put my life into half his estate, provided I would put his whole family's into all mine.
Vermilia. There is a more dangerous, tho' a more ridiculous fool than any of these, and that is a fine gentleman, who becomes the disguise of a lover worse than any you have named.
Lady Matchless. O, ay; a man of sense acts a lover just as a Dutchman would a harlequin. He stumbles at every straw we throw in his way, which a fop would skip over with ease.1
The manner of Congreve is closely imitated in Fielding's first comedy, which abounds in "the reciprocation of conceits, or clash of wit," rendered fashionable by that brilliant writer. As for humour, the genial, hearty humour which pervaded the later productions of his pen, few traces of it are to be found in this early effort. There is, indeed, rather an amusing portrait of an ignorant, arrogant country squire Sir Positive Trap; one of the never-to-be-forgotten Western tribe, who boasts of having "a nobler coat of arms than the Grand Mogul," and who "hopes to see the
(1) The heartless and languid tone of the comedies of this period everywhere reminds us of a profligate town-life from which all sentiment was banished. In their conduct with respect to love-matters, the manners of the fine gentlemen and ladies of the days of George I. and II. were cleverly contrasted with those of the preceding epochs by Goldsmith, in his Life of Beau Nash :-"As Nestor was a man of three ages, so Nash sometimes humorously called himself a beau of three generations. He had seen flaxen bobs succeeded by majors, which in their turn gave way to negligents, which were at last totally routed by bags and ramilies. The manner in which gentlemen managed their amours in these different ages of fashion was not more [less?] different than their perriwigs. The lover in the reign of King Charles was solemn, majestic, and formal. He visited his mistress in state; languished for her favour, kneeled when he toasted his goddess, walked with solemnity, performed the most trifling things with decorum, and even took snuff with a flourish. The beau of the latter part of Queen Anne's reign was disgusted with so much formality; he was pert, smart, and lively; his billets-doux were written in quite a different style from that of his antiquated predecessor; he was ever laughing at his own ridiculous situation; till at last he persuaded the lady to become as ridiculous as himself. The beau of the third age, in which Nash died, was still more extraordinary than either; his whole secret in intrigue consisted in perfect indifference. The only way to make love now, I have heard Nash say, was to take no manner of notice of the lady; which method was found the surest way to secure her affections."-Goldsmith's Life of Beau Nash (Works, vol. iv., 1854).
(2) Johnson's Life of Congreve.