How little do they know of the nature of true comedy, who believe that its proper business is to set us patterns for imitation. For all such patterns are serious things, and laughter is the life and the very soul of comedy. 'Tis its proper business to expose persons to our view whose views we may shun and whose follies we may despise; and by showing us what is done upon the comic stage, to show us what ought never to be done upon the stage of the world.
All the characters in Sir Fopling Flutter, and especially the principal characters, are admirably drawn, both to please and to instruct. First, they are drawn to please, because they are drawn in the truth of nature; but to be drawn in the truth of nature, they must be drawn with those qualities that are proper to each respective season of life. (1)
A comic poet who gives to a young man the qualities that belong to a middle-aged man or to an old man can answer neither of the ends of his art. He cannot please, because he writes out of nature, of which all poetry is an imitation, and without which no poem can possibly please. And as he cannot please, he cannot instruct; because, by showing such a young man as is not to be seen in the world, he shows a monster and not a man, sets before us a particular character instead of an allegorical and universal one, as all his characters, and especially his principal characters, ought to be; and therefore can give no general instruction, having no moral, no fable, and therefore no comedy. Now if anyone is pleased to compare the character of Dorimant, to which the knight (2) has taken so much absurd exception, with the two forementioned descriptions, he will find in his character all the chief distinguishing strokes of them. For such is the force of nature, and so admirable a talent had she given Sir George for comedy, that, though to my certain knowledge he understood neither Greek nor Latin, yet one would swear that in drawing his Dorimant, he copied the foresaid drafts, and especially that of Aristotle. Dorimant is a young courtier, haughty, vain, and prone to anger, amorous, false, and inconstant. He debauches Loveit and betrays her; loves Bellinda, and so soon as he enjoys her is false to her.
But secondly, the characters in Sir Fopling are admirably contrived to please, and more particularly the principal ones, because we find in those characters a true resemblance of the persons both in court and town who lived at the time when that comedy was written. For Rapin (3) tells us with a great deal of judgment:
"That comedy is as it ought to be when an audience is apt to imagine that instead of being in the pit and boxes they are in some assembly of the neighbourhood or in some family meeting and that we see nothing done in it but what is done in the world. For it is [says he] not worth one farthing if we do not discover ourselves in it, and do not find in it both our own manners and those of the persons with whom we live and converse."
The reason of this rule is manifest, for as it is the business of a comic poet to cure his spectators of vice and folly by the apprehension of being laughed at, it is plain that his business must be with the reigning follies and vices. The violent passions which are the subjects of tragedy are the same in every age and appear with the same face; but those vices and follies which are the subjects of comedy are seen to vary continually. Some of those that belonged to our ancestors have no relation to us, and can no more come under the cognizance of our present comic poets than the sweating and sneezing sickness can come under the practice of our contemporary physicians. What vices and follies may infect those who are to come after us, we know not; it is the present, the reigning vices and follies, that must be the subjects of our present comedy. The comic poet therefore must take characters from such persons as are his contemporaries and are infected with the foresaid follies and vices.
Now I remember very well that upon the first acting this comedy, it was generally believed to be an agreeable representation of the persons of condition of both sexes, both in court and town; and that all the world was charmed with Dorimant; and that it was unanimously agreed that he had in him several of the qualities of Wilmot Earl of Rochester, as his wit, his spirit, his amorous temper, the charms that he had for the fair sex, his falsehood, and his inconstancy; the agreeable manner of his chiding his servants, which the late Bishop of Salisbury takes notice of in his life; and lastly, his repeating on every occasion the verses of Waller, for whom that noble lord had a very particular esteem; witness his imitation of the Tenth Satire of the First Book of Horace:
Waller, by nature for the bays design'd,
With spirit, force, and fancy unconfin'd,
In panegyric is above mankind.
Now, as several of the qualities in Dorimant's character were taken from the Earl of Rochester, so they who were acquainted with the late Sir Fleetwood Shepherd knew very well that not a little of that gentleman's character is to be found in Medley.
But the characters in this comedy are very well formed to instruct as well as to please, especially those of Dorimant and of Loveit; and they instruct by the same qualities to which the knight has taken so much whimsical exception; as Dorimant instructs by his insulting and his perfidiousness, and Loveit by the violence of her resentment and her anguish. For Loveit has youth, beauty, quality, wit, and spirit. And it was depending upon these that she reposed so dangerous a trust in Dorimant, which is a just caution to the fair sex never to be so conceited of the power of their charms or their other extraordinary qualities as to believe they can engage a man to be true to them to whom they grant the best favor without the only sure engagement, without which they can never be certain that they shall not be hated and despised by that very person whom they have done everything to oblige.
To conclude with one general observation, that comedy may be qualified in a powerful manner both to instruct and to please, the very constitution of its subject ought always to be ridiculous. Comedy, says Rapin, is an image of common life and its end is to expose upon the stage the defects of particular persons in order to cure the defects of the public and to correct and amend the people by the fear of being laughed at. That therefore, says he, which is most essential to comedy is certainly the ridicule.
Every poem is qualified to instruct and to please most powerfully by that very quality which makes the forte and the characteristic of it, and which distinguishes it from all other kinds of poems. As tragedy is qualified to instruct and to please by terror and compassion, which two passions ought always to be predominant in it and to distinguish it from all other poems, epic poetry pleases and instructs chiefly by admiration, which reigns throughout it and distinguishes it from poems of every other kind. Thus comedy instructs and pleases most powerfully by the ridicule, because that is the quality which distinguishes it from every other poem. The subject, therefore, of every comedy ought to be ridiculous by its constitution; the ridicule ought to be of the very nature and essence of it. Where there is none of that, there can be no comedy. It ought to reign both in the incidents and in the characters, and especially in the principal characters, which ought to be ridiculous in themselves, or so contrived as to show and expose the ridicule of others. In all the masterpieces of Ben Jonson, the principal character has the ridicule in himself, as Morose in The Silent Woman, Volpone in The Fox, and Subtle and Face in The Alchemist; and the very ground and foundation of all these comedies is ridiculous. 'Tis the verv same thing in the masterpieces of Moliere: The Misanthrope, The Imposter, The Avare, and the Femmes Savantes. Nay, the reader will find that in most, of his other pieces the principal characters are ridiculous; as, L'Étourdi, Les Precieuses Ridicules, Le Cocu Imaginaire, Les Fâcheux, ,and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, L'École des Maris, L'École des Femmes, L'Amour Médecin, Le Méedecin Malgré lui, Le Mariage Forcé, George Dandin, Les Fourberies de Scapin, Le Malade Imaginaire. The reader will not only find upon reflection that in all these pieces the principal characters are ridiculous, but that in most of them there is the ridicule of comedy in the very titles.
'Tis by the ridicule that there is in the character of Sir Fopling, which is one of the principal ones of this comedy, and from which it takes its name, that he is so very well qualified to please and to instruct. What true Englishman is there but must be pleased to see this ridiculous knight made the jest and the scorn of all the other characters for showing, by his foolish aping foreign customs and manners, that he prefers another country to his own? And of what important instruction must it be to all our youth who travel to show them that, if they so far forget the love of their country as to declare by their espousing foreign customs and manners that they prefer France or Italy to Great Britain, at their return they must justly expect to be the jest and the scorn of their own countrymen.
Thus, I hope I have convinced the reader that this comical knight, Sir Fopling, has been justly formed by the knight his father to instruct and please, whatever may be the opinion to the contrary of the knight his brother.
Whenever The Fine Gentleman (4) of the latter comes upon the stage, I shall be glad to see that it has all the shining qualities which recommend Sir Fopling, that his characters are always drawn in nature, and that he never gives to a young man the qualities of a middle-aged man or an old one; that they are the just images of our contemporaries, and of what we every day see in the world; that instead of setting us patterns for our imitation, which is not the proper business of comedy, he makes those follies and vices ridiculous which we ought to shun and despise; that the subject of his comedy is comical by its constitution; and that the ridicule is particularly in the grand incidents and in the principal characters. For a true comic poet is a philosopher who, like old Democritus, always instructs us laughing.