Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Poet and Player
By Henry Fielding (17071754)
From Joseph Andrews
THE POET, addressing the player, proceeded thus, As I was saying (for they had been at this discourse all the time of the engagement above-stairs), the reason you have no good new plays is evident; it is from your discouragement of authors. Gentlemen will not write, sir, they will not write, without the expectation of fame or profit, or perhaps both. Plays are like trees, which will not grow without nourishment; but like mushrooms, they shoot up spontaneously, as it were, in a rich soil. The muses, like vines, may be pruned, but not with a hatchet. The town, like a peevish child, knows not what it desires, and is always best pleased with a rattle. A farce-writer hath indeed some chance for success; but they have lost all taste for the sublime. Though I believe one reason of their depravity is the badness of the actors. If a man writes like an angel, sir, those fellows know not how to give a sentiment utterance.Not so fast, says the player; the modern actors are as good at least as their authors, nay, they come nearer their illustrious predecessors; and I expect a Booth on the stage again, sooner than a Shakespeare or an Otway; and indeed I may turn your observation against you, and with truth say, that the reason no authors are encouraged is because we have no good new plays.I have not affirmed the contrary, said the poet; but I am surprised you grow so warm; you cannot imagine yourself interested in this dispute; I hope you have a better opinion of my taste than to apprehend I squinted at yourself. No, sir, if we had six such actors as you, we should soon rival the Bettertons and Sandfords of former times; for, without a compliment to you, I think it impossible for any one to have excelled you in most of your parts. Nay, it is solemn truth, and I have heard many, and all great judges, express as much; and, you will pardon me if I tell you, I think every time I have seen you lately you have constantly acquired some new excellence, like a snow-ball. You have deceived me in my estimation of perfection, and have outdone what I thought inimitable.You are as little interested, answered the player, in what I have said of other poets; for d me if there are not many strokes, aye, whole scenes, in your last tragedy which at least equal Shakespeare. There is a delicacy of sentiment, a dignity of expression in it, which I will own many of our gentlemen did not do adequate justice to. To confess the truth, they are bad enough, and I pity an author who is present at the murder of his works.Nay, it is but seldom that it can happen, returned the poet; the works of most modern authors, like dead-born children, cannot be murdered. It is such wretched half-begotten, half-writ, lifeless, spiritless, low, grovelling stuff, that I almost pity the actor who is obliged to get it by heart, which must be almost as difficult to remember as words in a language you dont understand.I am sure, said the player, if the sentences have little meaning when they are writ, when they are spoken they have less. I know scarce one who ever lays an emphasis right, and much less adapts his action to his character. I have seen a tender lover in an attitude of fighting with his mistress, and a brave hero suing to his enemy with his sword in his hand. I dont care to abuse my profession, but rot me if in my heart I am not inclined to the poets side.It is rather generous in you than just, said the poet; and, though I hate to speak ill of any persons productionnay, I never do it, nor willbut yet to do justice to the actors, what could Booth or Betterton have made of such horrible stuff as Fentons Mariamne, Frowds Philotas, or Mallets Eurydice; or those low, dirty, last-dying speeches, which a fellow in the city of Wapping, your Dillo or Lillo, what was his name, called tragedies?Very well, says the player; and pray what do you think of such fellows as Quin and Delane, or that face-making puppy young Cibber, that ill-looked dog Macklin, or that saucy slut Mrs. Clive? What work would they make with your Shakespeares, Otways, and Lees? How would those harmonious lines of the last come from their tongues?
Hold! hold! hold! said the poet. Do repeat that tender speech in the third act of my play which you made such a figure in.I would willingly, said the player, but I have forgot it.Ay, you was not quite perfect in it when you played it, cries the poet, or you would have had such an applause as was never given on the stage; an applause I was extremely concerned for your losing.Sure, says the player, if I remember, that was hissed more than any passage in the whole play.Ay, your speaking it was hissed, said the poet.My speaking it! said the player.I mean your not speaking it, said the poet. You was out and then they hissed.They hissed, and then I was out, if I remember, answered the player; and I must say this for myself, that the whole audience allowed I did your part justice; so dont lay the damnation of your play to my account.I dont know what you mean by damnation, replied the poet.Why, you know it was acted but one night, cried the player.No, said the poet, you and the whole town were enemies; the pit were all my enemies, fellows that would cut my throat, if the fear of hanging did not restrain them. All tailors, sir, all tailors.Why should the tailors be so angry with you? cries the player. I suppose you dont employ so many in making your clothes.I admit your jest, answered the poet; but you remember the affair as well as myself; you know there was a party in the pit and upper gallery that would not suffer it to be given out again; though much, ay infinitely the majority, all the boxes in particular, were desirous of it; nay, most of the ladies swore they would never come to the house till it was acted again. Indeed, I must own their policy was good in not letting it be given out a second time; for the rascals knew if it had gone a second night it would have run fifty; for if ever there was distress in a tragedyI am not fond of my own performance; but if I should tell you what the best judges said of itNor was it entirely owing to my enemies neither that it did not succeed on the stage as well as it hath since among the polite readers; for you cannot say it had justice done it by the performers.I think, answered the player, the performers did the distress of it justice; for I am sure we were in distress enough, who were pelted with oranges all the last act; we all imagined it would have been the last act of our lives.