Remarks by John Dennis (1723)
On 'The Conscious Lovers' by Sir Richard Steele

When Sir Richard says that anything that has its foundation in happiness and success must be the subject of comedy, he confounds comedy with that species of tragedy which has a happy catastrophe. When he says that 'tis an improvement of comedy to introduce a joy too exquisite for laughter, he takes all the care that he can to show that he knows nothing of the nature of comedy. Does he really believe that Moliere, who, in the opinion of all Europe, excepting that small portion of it which is acquainted with Ben Jonson, had borne away the prize of comedy from all nations and from all ages if for the sake of his profit he had not descended sometimes too much to buffoonry? Let Sir Richard or anyone look into that little piece of Moliere called La Critique de l'école des femmes, and he shall find there that in Moliere's opinion 'tis the business of a comic poet to enter into the ridicule of men and to expose the blind sides of all sorts of people agreeably; that he does nothing at all if he does not draw the pictures of his contemporaries and does not raise the mirth of the sensible part of an audience, which, says he, 'tis no easy matter to do. This is the sense of Moliere, though the words are not his exactly.

When Sir Richard talks of a joy too exquisite for laughter, he seems not to know that joy, generally taken, is common, like anger, indignation, love, to all sorts of poetry: to the epic, the dramatic, the lyric; but that that kind of joy which is attended with laughter is the characteristic of comedy, as terror or compassion, according as the one or the other is predominant, makes the characteristic of tragedy, as admiration does of epic poetry.

When Sir Richard says that weeping upon the sight of a deplorable object is not a subject for laughter but that 'tis agreeable to good sense and to humanity, he says nothing but what all the sensible part of the world has always granted; but then all that sensible part of the world have always denied that a deplorable object is fit to be shown in comedy. When Sir George Etherege, in his comedy of Sir Fopling Flutter, shows Loveit in all the height and violence of grief and rage, the judicious poet takes care to give those passions a ridiculous turn by the mouth of Dorimant. Besides that, the subject is at the bottom ridiculous; for Loveit is a mistress who has abandoned herself to Dorimant, and by falling into these violent passions only because she fancies that something of which she is very desirous has gone beside her makes herself truly ridiculous. Thus is the famous scene in the second act of Sir Fopling by the character of Loveit and the dextrous handling of the subject kept within the bounds of comedy. But the scene of the discovery in the Conscious Lovers is truly tragical. Indiana was strictly virtuous. She had indeed conceived a violent passion for Bevil, but all young people in full health are liable to such a passion, and perhaps the most sensible and the most virtuous are more than others liable. But besides that she kept this passion within the bounds of honour, it was the natural effect of her esteem for her benefactor and of her gratitude; that is, of her virtue. These considerations rendered her case deplorable and the catastrophe downright tragical, which of a comedy ought to be the most comical part for the same reason that it ought to be the most tragical part of a tragedy.

The filial obedience of young Bevil is carried a great deal too far. He is said to be one of a great estate and a great understanding; and yet he makes a promise to his father not to marry without his consent, which is a promise that can do his father only a vain imaginary good and may do him real hurt. A young man of a great understanding cannot but know that if he makes such a promise he may be obliged to break it, or perish, or at least be unhappy all the rest of his life. Such a one cannot but know that he may possibly be seized with a passion so resistless and so violent that he must possess or perish; and consequently if the woman who inspires this passion be a woman of strict virtue, he must marry, or perish, or at least be mortally uneasy for the rest of his life. Children, indeed, before they come to years of discretion are obliged to pay a blind obedience to their parents. But after they are come to the full use of their reason they are only bound to obey them in what is reasonable. Indeed, if a son is in expectation of an estate from his father, he is engaged to a good deal of compliance, even after he comes to years of discretion. But that was not Bevil's case: he enjoyed a very good one of his mother's, by virtue of a marriage article; and therefore it was unreasonable in him to make such a promise to his father, as it was unreasonable in his father to urge him of it, especially upon so sordid a motive as the doubling a great estate. This is acting in a manner something arbitrary. And it ill becomes an author who would be thought a patron of liberty to suppose that fathers are absolute when kings themselves are limited. If he had not an understanding of his own to tell him this, he might have learned from Mr. Locke, in his sixth chapter of his admirable Essay on Government:

That every man has a right to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man. Children, I confess, are not born in this full state of equality, though they are born to it. Their parents have a sort of rule and jurisdiction over them when they come into the world, and for some time after; but it is but a temporary one. The bonds of this subjection are like the swaddling clothes which they are wrapped up in, and supported by in the weakness of their infancy. Age and reason, as they grow up, lessen them, till at length they drop quite off, and leave a man at his own free disposal.

From what I have quoted from so judicious and so penetrating an author, I think it is pretty plain that young Bevil, who disposed of part of his estate without, nay, and as he might reasonably suppose, against the consent of his father, might a fortiori have disposed of his person too if it had not been for his unreasonable promise; and that it is highly improbable that one of the estate and understanding which he is said to have should absurdly make a promise which might possibly endanger the happiness of his whole life. 'Tis said, indeed, in more than one place of the play that the son has uncommon obligations to his father; but we are neither told, nor are we able to guess, what those obligations are. What uncommon obligations can a son who has a great estate in possession have to a father of so sordid a nature as Sir John Bevil shows himself? Act IV. Besides, what obligations can be binding enough to make a man of a great estate part with liberty, with the very liberty of his choice, in the most important action of his life, upon which the happiness of all the rest depends?

But as unreasonable as this promise is, which young Bevil made to his father, by which he gave away his birthright, his liberty, yes, the very liberty of his choice, in an affair upon which his happiness most depended, his behaviour to Indiana is still more unaccountable. He loves her and is beloved by her; makes constant visits and profuse presents to her; and yet conceals his passion from her; which may be perhaps a clumsy expedient for the author's preparing the discovery, but is neither agreeable to nature nor reason. For it is impossible that any young man in nature, in health and vigour, and in the height of a violent passion, can so far command himself by the mere force of reason. I am willing, indeed, to allow that he may be able to do it by the assistance of the true religion. But the business of a comic poet is only to teach morality; Grace is not taught, but inspired. The dreadful mysteries of Christianity are but ill compatible with the lightness and mirth of comedy, or with the obscenity and profaneness of a degenerate stage, or with the dispositions of an assembly composed of persons who have some of them no religion and some of them not the true one. Besides that, nothing but a doctrine taken from the moral law can be a just foundation of a fable, which every true comedy is.

Nor is such a behaviour any more agreeable to reason than it is to nature. Bevil loves Indiana and is beloved by her; she adores him, she dies for him, and he knows it; he observes it, and observes at the same time that so violent a passion is attended with equal anxiety; and that anxiety is entirely caused by the perplexing doubt she is in, whether she is beloved or not, as appears by what he says himself, Act II. Why then doth he not declare himself and by that declaration compose her mind and qualify her to expect with patience the benefit of time? 'Tis indeed true that he had promised his father never to marry without his consent while his father lived; but he had not promised him never to love without his consent; for that would have been a ridiculous promise; a promise the performance or non-performance of which was not in his own power and would depend entirely on what the people call chance and what philosophers call providence. What could he mean then by not declaring himself? As the love he had conceived for Indiana was no breach of the promise he had made to his father, so neither could he violate it by any declaration of that passion! What then, once more, can he mean by his silence? His only reasonable way of proceeding had been to acquaint not only his mistress, but his father and all the world, with the passion which he felt for her and with the necessity he was in to marry her, or to be forever miserable. Such a declaration was not at all inconsistent with his duty; and if his father had either reason or compassion, would have caused him to relent and to release his son from a promise, the persevering in which must prove unhappy or fatal to him. If it should be said that such a concealment of his passion was necessary that he might make a retreat with honour in case his father should still be obstinate; to this I answer that there was no retreat for him unless he would at the same time retreat from virtue and honour; that his behaviour had fixed and determined him; that by his generosity and constant visits he had raised the passion of Indiana to such a height that his leaving her would in all likelihood be followed by madness, or by self-murder, or by dreadful hysterical symptoms as deplorable as either; of which, what passes between her father and her in the fifth act is a sufficient proof. Beside, that such a retreat would prove as fatal to her honour as to her person. He had for some time made constant visits; he had made very extravagant presents to her; he had made no declaration of the affection he had for her, either to her or to her Aunt Isabella, or acquainted anyone with his design to marry her if he could obtain his father's consent. Now can anything be more plain than that such a behaviour, if he left her, would ruin the reputation of the poor lady and cause all the world to entertain such thoughts of her as Sealand and Myrtle had already expressed? And thus I have endeavoured to show that the behaviour of Bevil to Indiana, in his concealing his passion from her, is as ridiculously whimsical as that of Cimberton to her sister Lucinda.

The catastrophe, I must confess, is very moving, but it would be more so if it were rightly and reasonably handled, because it would be much more surprising. For the surprise is, in a good measure, prevented by the behaviour of Isabella upon the first appearance of Sealand; which, if it had not been out of all probability and nature, would have prevented it more. It was highly in nature and probability that Isabella, upon the first discovering her brother, should fly into an excessive transport of joy and have run to embrace him; for when she is made to say that her brother must not know her yet, she is made to give no reasons for it, nor can the audience imagine any. 'Tis not Isabella who says that, but the author, who clumsily uses it to serve a turn; for if she had discovered herself to her brother at his first appearance, it had prevented the audience's sorrow and compassion for the imaginary distress of Indiana and, consequently, their return to joy. But as Aristotle and all the great critics after him have taught us, that there is to be no incident in a dramatic poem but what must be founded on reason, it happens, as we observed above, very unluckily here, that there is no incident in the Conscious Lovers but what is attended by some great absurdity. For the action of Indiana in throwing away her bracelet is of the same stamp and is entirely the author's and not the dramatic person's; for it was neither necessary nor profitable that Indiana, in the height of her agony, should so much as think of her bracelet, or if she did think of it, should resolve to throwaway the greatest token that she had to remember her dead mother, for whose memory her grief and distress ought naturally to renew and redouble her tenderness. But the author is obliged to have recourse to this as an awkward expedient, though the best he could find, to bring on the discovery. But had he known anything of the art of the stage, he would have known that those discoveries are but dully made which are made by tokens; that they ought necessarily or probably to spring from the whole train of the incidents contrary to our expectation. And how easy was it to bring that about here? For such a discovery had been very well prepared by what young Bevil says to Humphrey in the first act and by the hint Indiana gives to Sealand in the fifth act, which hint the old gentleman readily takes; for when she tells him she had been made an infant captive on the seas, he immediately cries out, "An infant captive!" and after some interruption given by Indiana, he says, "Dear lady! O yet one moment's patience, my heart grows full with your affliction, but yet there is something in your story that ———". She answers as if she were at cross purposes, "My portion here is bitterness and sorrow." To which he replies, "Do not think so. Pray answer me, does Bevil know your name and family?" So that a few questions more, pertinently answered, would have brought on the discovery. Now if the discovery had been made this way and Isabella had not known her brother at her first seeing him, but had come in to Sealand and Indiana just after the discovery had been made, there would have been two surprises, both greater and more agreeable than now they are and both of them without absurdity.