The Editor may be pardoned in bestowing remarks upon Dryden's plays, only in proportion to their intrinsic merit, and to the attention which each has excited, either at its first appearance, or when the public attention has been since directed towards them. In either point of view, little need be said on the "Wild Gallant." It was Dryden's first theatrical production, and its reception by no means augured his future pre-eminence in literature; nor was it more than tolerated, when afterwards revived under the sanction of his increasing fame. It was brought upon the stage in February 1662-3, according to the conjecture of Mr Malone, who observes, that the following lines in the prologue.
It should have been but one continued song; Or, at the least, a dance of three hours long;
must refer to D'Avenant's opera, called the "Siege of Rhodes," acted in 1662; and that the expression, "in plays, he finds, you love mistakes," alludes to the blunders of Teague, an Irish footman, in Sir Robert Howard's play of the "Committee." The "Wild Gallant" was revived and published in 1669, with a new prologue and epilogue, and some other alterations, not of a nature, judging from the prologue, to improve the morality of the piece. That the play had but indifferent success in the action, the poet himself has informed us, with the qualifying addition, that it more than once was the divertisement of Charles II., by his own command. This honourable distinction it probably acquired by the influence of the Countess of Castlemaine, then the royal favourite, to whom Dryden addresses some verses on her encouraging this play.--See Vol. XI p. 18.--The plot is borrowed avowedly from the Spanish, and partakes of the unnatural incongruity, common to the dramatic pieces of that nation, as also of the bustle and intrigue, with which they are usually embroiled. Few modern audiences would endure the absurd grossness of the deceit practised on Lord Nonsuch in the fourth act; nor is the plot of Lady Constance, to gain her lover, by marrying him in the disguise of a heathen divinity, more grotesque than unnatural.--Yet, in the under characters, some liveliness of dialogue is maintained; and the reader may be amused with particular scenes, though, as a whole, the early fate of the play was justly merited.
These passages, in which the plot stands still, while the spectators are entertained with flippant dialogue and repartee, are ridiculed in the scene betwixt Prince Prettyman and Tom Thimble in the Rehearsal; the facetious Mr Bibber being the original of the latter personage. The character of Trice, at least his whimsical humour of drinking, playing at dice by himself, and quarrelling as if engaged with a successful gamester, is imitated from the character of Carlo, in Jonson's "Every Man out of his Humour," who drinks with a supposed companion, quarrels about the pledge, and tosses about the cups and flasks in the imaginary brawl. We have heard similar frolics related of a bon-vivant of the last generation, inventor of a game called solitaire, who used to complain of the hardship of drinking by himself, because the toast came too often about.
The whole piece seems to have been intended as a sacrifice to popular taste; and, perhaps, our poet only met a deserved fate, when he stooped to sooth the depraved appetite, which his talents enabled him to have corrected and purified. Something like this feeling may be interred from the last lines of the second epilogue:
Would you but change, for serious plot and verse, This motley garniture of fool and farce; Nor scorn a mode, because 'tis taught at home, Which dues, like vests,[A] our gravity become; Our poet yields you should this play refuse, As tradesmen by the change of fashions lose, With some content, their fripperies of France, In hope it may their staple trade advance.
[Footnote A: This seems to allude to the Polish dress, which, upon his restoration, Charles wished to introduce into Britain. It was not altered for the French, till his intimacy with that court was cemented by pecuniary dependence.]
In the prologue, the author indulges himself in a display of the terms of astrology, of which vain science he was a believer and a student.
Walter Scott, editor.
It would be a great impudence in me to say much of a comedy, which has had but indifferent success in the action. I made the town my judges, and the greater part condemned it: after which, I do not think it my concernment to defend it with the ordinary zeal of a poet for his decried poem. Though Corneille is more resolute in his preface before his Pertharite[A], which was condemned more universally than this; for he avows boldly, that, in spite of censure, his play was well and regularly written; which is more than I dare say for mine. Yet it was received at court; and was more than once the divertisement of his Majesty, by his own command; but I have more modesty than to ascribe that to my merit, which was his particular act of grace. It was the first attempt I made in dramatic poetry; and, I find since, a very bold one, to begin with comedy, which is the most difficult part of it. The plot was not originally my own; but so altered by me, (whether for the better or worse I know not) that whoever the author was, he could not have challenged a scene of it. I doubt not but you will see in it the uncorrectness of a young writer; which is yet but a small excuse for him, who is so little amended since. The best apology I can make for it, and the truest, is only this, that you have, since that time, received with applause, as bad, and as uncorrect plays from other men.
[Footnote A: "Le succés de cette tragédie à été si malheureux, que pour m'epargner le chagrin de m'en souvenir, je n'en dirai presque rien.--J'ajoute ici malgré sa disgrace, que les sentimens en sont assez vifs et nobles, les vers assez bien tournes, et que la façon dont le sujet s'explique dans la première scène ne manque pas d'artifice."
Examen de Pertharite.]
PROLOGUE, WHEN IT WAS FIRST ACTED.
Is it not strange to hear a poet say, He comes to ask you, how you like the play? You have not seen it yet: alas! 'tis true; But now your love and hatred judge, not you: And cruel factions (bribed by interest) come, Not to weigh merit, but to give their doom. Our poet, therefore, jealous of th' event, And (though much boldness takes) not confident, Has sent me, whither you, fair ladies, too, Sometimes upon as small occasions, go; And, from this scheme, drawn for the hour and day, Bid me enquire the fortune of his play.
The curtain drawn discovers two Astrologers; the prologue is presented to them.
1 Astrol. reads, A figure of the heavenly bodies in their several Apartments, Feb. the 5th, half-an-hour after three afternoon, from whence you are to judge the success of a new play, called the Wild Gallant.
2 Astrol. Who must judge of it, we, or these gentlemen? We'll not meddle with it, so tell your poet. Here are, in this house, the ablest mathematicians in Europe for his purpose.
They will resolve the question, ere they part. 1 Att: Yet let us judge it by the rules of art; First Jupiter, the ascendant's lord disgraced, In the twelfth house, and near grim Saturn placed, Denote short life unto the play:-- 2 Ast: --Jove yet, In his apartment Sagittary, set Under his own root, cannot take much wrong. 1 Ast: Why then the life's not very short, nor long; 2 Ast: The luck not very good, nor very ill; Prole: That is to say, 'tis as 'tis taken still. 1 Ast: But, brother, Ptolemy the learned says, 'Tis the fifth house from whence we judge of plays. Venus, the lady of that house, I find Is Peregrine; your play is ill-designed; It should have been but one continued song, Or, at the least, a dance of three hours long. Ast: But yet the greatest mischief does remain, The twelfth apartment bears the lords of Spain; Whence I conclude, it is your author's lot, To be endangered by a Spanish plot. Prolo: Our poet yet protection hopes from you, But bribes you not with any thing that's new; Nature is old, which poets imitate, And, for wit, those, that boast their own estate, Forget Fletcher and Ben before them went, Their elder brothers, and that vastly spent; So much, 'twill hardly be repair'd again, Not, though supplied with all the wealth of Spain, This play is English, and the growth your own; As such, it yields to English plays alone. He could have wish'd it better for your sakes, But that, in plays, he finds you love mistakes: Besides, he thought it was in vain to mend, What you are bound in honour to defend; That English wit, howe'er despised by some, Like English valour, still may overcome.
PROLOGUE, WHEN REVIVED.
As some raw squire, by tender mother bred, 'Till one-and-twenty keeps his maidenhead; (Pleased with some sport, which he alone does find; And thinks a secret to all humankind;) 'Till mightily in love, yet half afraid, He first attempts the gentle dairy maid: Succeeding there, and, led by the renown Of Whetston's park, he comes at length to town; Where entered, by some school-fellow or friend, He grows to break glass windows in the end: His valour too, which with the watch began, Proceeds to duel, and he kills his man. By such degrees, while knowledge he did want, Our unfledged author writ a Wild Gallant. He thought him monstrous lewd, (I lay my life) Because suspected with his landlord's wife; But, since his knowledge of the town began, He thinks him now a very civil man; And, much ashamed of what he was before, Has fairly play'd him at three wenches more. 'Tis some amends his frailties to confess; Pray pardon him his want of wickedness: He's towardly, and will come on apace; His frank confession shows he has some grace. You baulked him when he was a young beginner, And almost spoiled a very hopeful sinner; But if once more you slight his weak endeavour, For aught I know, he may turn tail forever;
Lord NONSUCH, an old rich humorous lord.
Justice TRICE, his neighbour.
Mr LOVEBY, the Wild Gallant.
Sir TIMOROUS, a bashful knight.
FAILER, } hangers-on of Sir TIMOROUS.
BIBBER, a tailor.
SETSTONE, a jeweller.
Lady CONSTANCE, Lord NONSUCH'S daughter,
Madam ISABELLA, her cousin.
Mrs BIBBER, the tailors wife.
Serjeants, Boy to LOVEBY, Servants, a Bawd and
Whores, Watch and Constable.