In contemplating the dramatic writers of this country, whose aerial forms, like those of the monarchs in Macbeth, seem through the media of their works, to pass in review before us, it is impossible to refrain from observing, that each of those of this period at least, carries a glass different from that of Banquo, as it reflects the characters of many that have preceded him: but whether these glasses are irregularly formed, whether they are composed of a number of small pieces, cut into too many refractive angles, or are deficient in brilliancy; whether their quicksilver has fled, or they want the true polish; it is impossible for us to say: but we are certain that they are not such correct reflectors of the genius of our ancestors, or indeed of the manners of the age, as those artificial mirrors which were held up in the seventeenth and great part of the eighteenth centuries.
Whether the manners and characters of the times are so productive of wit and humour; whether they exhibit so bold an outline, or such strong, such determined features of virtue and vice; are questions which we do not hold ourselves bound to answer, except by remarking, that the impetuous torrent of genius, like other torrents, may, in a long course of years, be exhausted, and leave its channel dry.
Admitting, for the sake of observation, this to be the case, and continuing the comparison which alludes to the poetical stream, we shall find, that, after rumbling for a long course of years down the rocks and craggs of mysteries and moralities, it began, even antecedent to the days of Shakspeare, when it rose to a spring tide, to run in its regular channel; it then burst its bounds, divided into several rivulets, and for ages, fertilized the ample fields of tragedy, comedy, and farce. From these luxuriant sources have sprung a number of weeds. OPERA took its rise from the masks in the reign of JAMES I., spread into a variety of branches in that of CHARLES II., was Italianized in that of ANNE, and has, either by natural or exotic exertions, been continued to the present era.
When this species of absurdity was thoroughly cultivated, the transition to PANTOMIME was easy. The attempt to endue this excrescence of the drama with something like common sense, by favouring Harlequin with the gift of speech, was attended with more success than might, from circumstances, have been expected. How much further this effort towards rationality would have been carried, had not the visionary scenery of MELO-DRAME appeared, it is impossible to day; but it is certain, that these, combining with other causes, have contaminated the pellucid medium of our Helicon, and converted a fountain into a puddle.
We deemed it necessary to give this slight allegorical sketch of dramatical transitions, in order to enable us with the greater facility to state a position which, although is possible it may be controverted, viz. that if this class of our writers are but indifferent, the taste of the pubic is still worse; yet we shall, notwithstanding, in its application, observe, that we think, owing to this circumstance, the gentleness whose portrait embellishes this Magazine has, in his theatric course, had difficulties to combat, the idea of which must appal every man of sense and genius; for he has not only had to write to please himself, but to please an age which, from the Italian school, from the French school, from the German school, and sometimes, we fear, from no school at all, is grown rather fastidious with respect to its approbation of the dramatic effusions of the TRUE ENGLISH SCHOOL.
It is not here our intention to discriminate the characteristics of these different schools of composition. Like those of painting, each has beauties that are sometimes local, and faults which, we fear, expand upon transplantation: therefore we are patriotic enough to prefer the genuine emanations of the English school; and to think, that whensoever we travel in search either of foreign sense or of foreign manners, we seldom return much wiser or much better than when we set out. We make these few remarks in compliment to the gentleman who is the subject of this sketch, because we conceive that, much to his credit, in an age abounding with foreign frivolity, and, which is much worse, foreign immorality, he has preserved, in his various productions, a very considerable share of the genuine English dramatic character. We do not here mean to criticise his several performances; but must, once for all, observe, that there is in his earlier effusions much more evident marks of their being written for fame than in his latter.
The memoir of a dramatic writer seldom abounds with incident; he lives in his works: the transactions of a manager are too important, and, we hope, conducted with too much secrecy, to render them liable to become the theme of desultory observation: we have therefore, with respect to this subject, only to collect those traits that are already recorded, and to give a list of these works which are already before the public.
GEORGE COLMAN, Esq., to whose portrait we now direct the attention of our readers, is the son of the late George Colman, Esq., a gentleman well known in the theatric world, and, as the author of many very excellent pieces, scarcely more known than admired. Like his father, the present Mr. Colman received his education in Westminster school, with a design, as it is said, to qualify him for the bar, for which profession his father was also intended. After passing through a regular course of studies, we presume as a king's scholar, he was removed to Christ Church, Oxford, but, for what reason we have not learned, finished his education at King's college, Old Aberdeen; whence he returned to London, and was entered at the Temple.
"Train up a child in the way he should go," is a maxim derived from the highest authority. Whether this had been practised with respect to young Colman, or that in his bosom the dramatic flame was hereditary, it is impossible to say: but we know, that his parent seemed to foster his genius; as he, in the prologue to the first play of his son's, with less elegance than might have been expected, announced him as "a chip of the old block." The success of this piece induced the youth, as Ranger says, to think "the law a confounded dry study." He consequently left all the pleaders and prosers from temp. Edw. I. to Geo. III. took his leave of records, tolls, cases, precedents, opinions, abridgments, and all the soporific lumber of what, we think, Fitzherbert calls "the university of the English law;" and leaving the Temple and the Hall for the haunts of the muses, wheresoever they may be (though we opine that we have seen these ladies, or some very like them, in both those places); Mr. Colman (who had the management of the Haymarket theatre during the illness of his father, and since, till within these few years, on his own account) began his career as a dramatic writer with every advantage, it must be observed, that could attend this profession.
Encouraged by an almost constant stream of success, the prolific pen of Mr. C. has produced the following dramas, viz. Two to One, Comedy, with songs, 1784. Turk and no Turk, Comedy, 1785. Inkle and Yarico, Comic Opera, 1787. Ways and Means, Comedy, 1788. The Battle of Hexham, Musical Drama, 1789. The Surrender of Calais, Musical Drama, 1790. Poor Old Haymarket; or, Two Sides of the Gutter, Prelude, 1793. Now Hay at the Old Market, Drama, 1795, afterwards called Sylvester Daggerwood. The Iron Chest, Musical Drama, 1796. The Heir at Law, Comedy, 1797. Blue Beard; or, Female Curiosity, Musical Entertainment, 1798, Blue Devils, Comic Piece, translated from the French, 1798. Feudal Times; or, the Banquet Gallery, Musical Entertainment, 1799. The Review; or, the Wags of Windsor, Musical Entertainment, 1800. The Poor Gentleman, Comedy, 1801. John Bull; or, an Englishman's Fire-side, Comedy, 1803. No Prelude, 1803, Love laughs at Locksmiths, Musical Farce from the French, 1803. The Gay Deceivers, Farce, 1804; and The Africans; or, War, Love, and Duty, Musical Drama, 1808.
His three farces, The Review, Love laughs at Locksmiths, and The Gay Deceivers, were introduced to the public under the assumed name of Arthur Griffenhoof, of Turnham-green. We can remember, that this name, contrary to general practice, was printed on the play-bills. How he came to adopt so cold a conceit, or what purpose it could answer, it is impossible for us to conjecture. We have, in former times, laughed very heartily at the learned Doctor Machouf of his father, and the humour of the bustling quack medical bookseller; but in Griffenhouf we cannot see a grain of humour, though such there unquestionably is, only it lies too deep for the ken of our visual faculties. Mr. C. has, besides the numerous list of dramatic productions that we have quoted, written many songs, prologues, epilogues, and other pieces. Among his occasional addresses is one, which was received with uncommon applause, intituled BRITISH LOYALTY; or, a Squeeze for St. Paul's, spoken by Mr. J. Bannister, at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket, 1782.
"In private life, Mr. Colman" is stated to be "social, convivial, and intelligent. Perhaps," saith the author from whom we quote, "there is no body who is more expert in the playful contention of wit and humour, and more ready at what is termed repartee, than himself. Amidst the general skirmish or raillery, he has never been perceived to be at a loss for some spirited retort."
Those, when transfused on paper, become valuable properties to the dramatic writer, and, mingled with strong sense and sound judgment, form a mental, that may be easily converted into a poetical composition, such as our fathers either produced or encouraged, and such as, from what Mr. C. has already done towards freeing us from the nonsense of the school alluded to, we judge that he has talents to effects. He has, from his situation and his works, obtained the ear of the public; therefore it is ardently hoped he will endeavour to set the passions of the age on the side of TASTE and GENIUS.