« AnteriorContinuar »
'Alfieri's POLITICAL COMEDIES. Or all the faults which the panegyrists of good old absolute monarchy (as it was half a century ago) can find with our troublesome times, they can at least'allege, with justice, that ridicule, as the source of comedy, is nearly exhausted. The strongly marked distinction of social orders, which afforded the comic poet so many different foibles, peculiarities, and caricatures, has been decaying for these thirty years in the best part of continental Europe.* The barriers between different classes of society had been so long established, and were of so much importance, that both the worshippers and idols of etiquette considered its institưtions as almost founded in nature:-hence mutual prejudices were rooted in their minds with a kind of comic conviction, and shone forth in their -manners with true comic effect. These barriers have now been dashed to the ground by the shock of revolutions ; or, being daily shaken, make it universally apparent, that if the widely different conditions inclosed within them may rise or fall every moment into the situations of each other, the difference has ceased to exist. All distinctions of rank are, at any rate, removed from the general estimation, since such various vicissitudes of fortune have proved the uncertainty of their con"tinuance; and, indeed, all societies seem now to be blended into one namely, that of politicians, breathing nothing but politics, and aiming at nothing but political ends. Or, if there still remains any variety in them, it is between the few who seek to retain their contested power and the many who endeavour to have it tempered, or taken from them.” Society, in these days, consists but of two orders--the ruling and the ruled the only ones which cannot perish in revolutions but to rise again. Social man is become, if we may say it without offence, a kind of general, uniform, monotonous personage-see one and you have seen all : he puts on the manners and the habits of the most opposite conditions as a matter of course, and keeps each of them as long as it suits his convenience. Surely, if the extoller of times gone by can upbraid modern man with being selfish, he cannot with being ridiculous. But this very gravity, both of our thoughts and actions, proves a real misfortune to comedy. The ends commonly pursued by mankind in our days are too serious, and the means employed often too grievously contemptible, to conjure up the genuine spirit of laughter.
The comedy of manners and characters being nearly exhausted, we possess but one other vein of ridicule (far less diversified), which arises from the abortive attempts of mankind when they would grasp at things beyond their mental or personal capacities. But still how melancholy would be the laugh called forth by Don Quixote, if, instead of a vain, chivalrous object, he aspired to a real, interesting,-in other words, a political one! Yet are the political attempts of the people still more melancholy than those of the Spanish knight; for their failure can neither be imputed to a fantastical view of human affairs, nor to a
It may not be unnecessary to remark, once for all, that whatever may be advanced in this or any other essay by the same writer respecting politics and literature is only meant as applicable to the Continent, or rather, ip strictness, only to Italy, France, and Spain. The circumstances of England, both political and literary, are peculiar to herself, and the writer, who is a foreigner, presumes not to interfere with them.
complete abstraction from surrounding objects. Alas! this bad success can seldom be comic, since it is too often occasioned by the perfidy or cowardice of those who start up as public leaders only to finish their career in treachery and desertion of those who cry for liberty for the mere purpose of obtaining the invidious power which they pretend to temper or destroy. Those, on the other hand, whose authority is thus threatened with diminution or destruction, envelope themselves in a more impenetrable garment of hypocrisy, and conduct their defence by means no less lamentable.
To unmask political hypocrisy, therefore, whatever colour it might assume, to lay open the secret springs by which powerful men, whether princes, patricians, or popular champions, are commonly actuated, was the object of Alfieri in his political comedies, as a means of inculcating a not unnecessary lesson. Alfieri invented these comedies when growing in years: the natural disgust arising from a too minute study of human actions, and the tremendous follies of the French revolution, made him, more than ever, despair of beholding that political freedom which is known to have been the ruling passion of his life. Hence, both as a patriot and as an Italian, he was inflamed against the fallacy of French liberty ; and still more against those French armies, which, at the moment they trampled upon unhappy Italy with conquering despotism, still mocked her with the vain show of a republic. That which we have dwelt on with the most ardent expectation, will naturally in its failure give birth to a corresponding keenness of disappointment. Amongst the effects of the French revolution (which were often unaccountable) it is not the least remarkable, that it should have, at last, abated in such a man as Alfieri even his generous hatred of absolute power. His upright sense of true liberty soon confirmed his hostility to that which was merely ostensible ; and, whilst in this mood, he composed his political comedies, most of his satires, and, above all, his Misogallo, which we are told by himself was suggested to him " by the vengeance of betrayed and polluted liberty.” Nevertheless, the frantic and bloody deeds of the French revolutionists, caused the highly republican spirit of Alfieri to undertake even the satire of Democracy as well as that of Aristocracy and Monarchy.
Like the Greeks, he composed his dramas with an active view to politics, and sometimes addressed them to posterity that he might more forcibly awaken the shame of his supine countrymen. D'Ancillon, we believe, has justly said that the main circumstance by which a high and active character may be distinguished from a great speculative genius is the strong influence of some single master-passion over the whole tenour of his thoughts and actions. Such was the case with Alfieri. Gifted as he was by nature with an extreme sensibility, we think he could have exhibited a more versatile delineation of character, had his mind been less powerfully riveted to the consideration of his country. In consequence of this one paramount feeling, the whole of his compositions are deficient in variety-his muse almost always prefers political subjects, and of all human passions delights to sing but of two-the thirst for power, and the impatience of servitude. Moreover, the country of Alfieri having long been the scene of accumulating misfortunes, his colours are uniformly dismal, like those of Tacitus. People who, from the absence of politics, or from a satisfac
tion in the state in which they are placed, are more pleased with variety than desirous of penetrating the depths of profound literature, cannot but find the Italian dramatist equally monotonous with the Latin historian. Alfieri, in his youthful days, exhibited the tragic conflict of political passions ; grown old, he laughs at them, and draws public men of all times, nations, and governments, en déshabille, that the hero being stripped of his tragic plumes, the man may be left ex posed in all his natural insignificance. But this portraiture, which perhaps might be taxed with malignity, were it only adopted for the purpose of rendering its subjects odious, is, to Alfieri, merely the means of compassing a nobler end. His comedies are not the continuation of a single fable, like the Grecian Trilogue, but are carried on for the developement of a single political truth-that since there is little reliance to be placed upon the virtue of mankind, their very wickedness may be turned to public advantage; for which purpose one bad passion is contrasted with another, till envy appears beneath the cloak of disinterested censure, and ambition beneath that of public zeal-a lesson by which the powerful are taught the art of restraining the encroachments of each other. Such is the import of his last political comedy, which he called “ The Antidote.” The poet, however, does not arrive at this moral till he has exposed, with a very Aristophanic licence, the vices and follies of the three primitive forms of simple government. In order to remind all political factions of the necessity of remaining satisfied with a mixed constitution, he freely ridicules monarchy in the comedy of the “One," aristocracy in the Few," and democracy in the “ Too many."
The humour in these comedies, if they may be said to possess any, is grave and philosophic. That which excites our laughter must necessarily command but a small portion of our interest: we can hardly laugh at ourselves, or at persons and things which are dear or important to us. How then could we laugh at that which deeply interests the social welfare, when, as in the present day, the means of attaining that end (which is at least the ostensible aim of both parties) are so fearfully controverted, and the usual results of the contest are battles, proscriptions, and the scaffold ? Such was the situation of the greater part of continental Europe at the period at which these plays were composed ; and into the same calamities it seems every moment about to relapse. Hence the smile which they produce is such as may be expected from such topics and such circumstances. We laugh indeed, but it is at the destiny, no less melancholy than laughable, of our species, which is born to be the sport of the whims, passions, vices, or even virtues of a handful of individuals. Such a laugh is more like the irony of misfortune than the luxury of happiness. It is the philosopher who laughs in Alfieri at the passions of the man, but without curing those passions, or abating the grief of his disappointments. It is the comic poet who ridicules the tragic one, but, like Juvenal, Alfieri can only laugh through an excess of spleen.
We propose giving such a sketch of these comedies as may convey some idea of their great originality and comic effect. They were never re-touched by the author, but add not a little to his dramatic fame, although they are scarcely known out of Italy except by a few slighting notices by foreign writers. Those who have a relish for the tragic muse of Alfieri will, we doubt not, experience equal delight from his comic one. We shall speak lastly of their style, which will be found not the least worthy of remark.
The “ One" is not the most striking of these comedies in its portraiture of the government and corresponding manners which it is intended to ridicule. It is somewhat bare of comic plot, and perhaps abounds too much in political disquisition-a dramatic fault which na turally arises from the subject. The scene is laid at Susa: the action is supposed to commence at the time when the seven Satraps, after having detected and murdered the impostor Smerdis, usurper of the crown of Cyrus, are deliberating upon the manner in which they shall re-model the government of Persia. This question being, of course, far more perplexing than that of getting rid of a tyrant, kindles a mutual jealousy amongst the competitors, and causes considerable anxiety to the people, who are impatient to be told the nature of their future yoke, and the person for whom they are to bear it-an impatience which late experience had rendered by no means unreasonable. At this time Parisa, the wife of Darius, one of the seven, has a mysterious dream, which seems to foretell the future greatness of her husband. Proud, envious, and highly born, the glory of regal greatness appears scarcely less gratifying to the mind of this woman than the prospect of mortifying her rivals, the wives of Orcanes and Artibanes, two others of the seven. Ambition, the parent of many a waking dream, causes Parisa to dream in her sleep that these females, having attended her to a banquet, instead of the enmity which they were accustomed to display on such occasions,
pareva ch’ambedue in umil atto
Volean baciarmi i piedi :” “ Methought both of them knelt down and worshipped me in the most humble postu:e, endeavouring, in spite of my efforts to prevent them, to kiss my feet ;” and with unusual flattery they fawned upon her ; whilst, enveloped in a cloud of gold, whatever she looked upon, or touched, spoke, swallowed, or spat, was all instantly converted into the same precious material. Upon this her rivals, followed at first by some, and afterwards by the whole of the company, strove who should most greedily inhale the riches which she breathed around her.. To dream of enjoying such prerogatives is to dream of possessing a crown. Parisa, however, for additional satisfaction, has sent for an astrologer to confirm the interpretation which she has put upon this splendid vision of her sleep. The play opens with a stolen interview with the seer Oneiro in the dead of night, lest Darius, who, by the bye, is a Satrap free-thinker, should be informed of her womanish credulity. Oneiro, having heard the dream, and much admired it as an apparent intimation from Mithras, is unwilling to afford an immediate solution, lest his professional reputation should be undervalued from the facility of his labours. But after having informed himself of the position in which the Satrapessa lay during the action of her dream, like a notable master of his art, he defers pronouncing judgment till he has had due time for deliberation. They agree to meet the following night, and Parisa burries to bed again that her husband's suspicions may not
be awakened. As the prophet is about to depart, he is detained by the groom of Darius, who, like his mistress, is anxious for the inter: pretation of a dream. This, indeed, is the master-dream of the play, but, oh, what an irreverent allegory does it present! The man had been sleeping on the stable-litter near Darius's favourite horse, Ches. balleno, and dreamed that he was suddenly awakened by the groans of this prince of Persian steeds, which, prancing and tossing itself into various attitudes, appeared to be labouring with excessive agony. We cannot proceed with the images of our poet. Alfieri was in the habit of paying too little regard to the punctilious delicacy of modern manners--the usual fault of authors who, like him, consider only the object to be attained. He is accustomed, in his comedies as well as his satires, to call things by their proper names, and cares little to avoid broad or even indecent ideas, whenever they are suitable to his purpose. At times he expressed himself coarsely from a high-minded indifference, and perhaps he thought it allowable in some degree to avail himself of the license of the ancient comic poets; particularly as these plays were neither intended for the stage, nor, .on weightier grounds than common decency, ever likely to be permitted a representation. This, however, would not be a sufficient apology for us, were we rash enough to be more explanatory. To be brief,—the groom dreamed that he administered the proper remedies for the pangs of the siek Chesballeno, when, wonderful to say, there came forth (it was only a dream
“ Una ben lunga, e sottilina, e lucida
Purpurea fascia aurata, un bel diadema
Realissimo." "A long, bright, purple and gold ribbon--a beautiful and most royal diadem.' The distemper still continuing, the dose was repeated—the product being
“ Un prezioso e sodo
Tenersi il nostro magno Ciro.” “A precious and well-wrought sceptre of the purest gold, precisely like that which we see wielded in the right hand of the numerous statues of our great Cyrus." The interpreter is struck with astonishment, and heartily congratulates the man on having dreamt só like a statesman. There can be now no possibility of mistake; such a pair of dreams, so corroborative of each other, and dreamed exactly at the moment when the throne of Persia is vacant, must needs portend a high fortune to the house of Darius.
Of the seven satraps, upon whom depends the question of appointing a successor, or successors, to the murdered Smerdis, and likewise the form of the new government, our poet introduces only four in the play; for, as the question is to be carried simply by a majority, four voters are considered sufficient. In the second act, three of them, Orcanes, Megabyzus, and Darius himself, being more anxious than the rest for the public good, assemble in a council of state. The fourth, Gobria, though earnestly entreated by his companions, refuses to attend. These three personages are severally the advocates of the three divers forms of simple government. Fear nothing, ye lovers of