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so that, as Colley Cibber put it, "the most distant ear had scarce the least doubt or difficulty in hearing what fell from the weakest utterance . . . nor was the minutest motion of a feature, properly changing with the passion or humour it suited, ever lost, as they frequently must be, in the obscurity of too great a distance." The platform-stage, with which Shakespeare was familiar, suffered no curtailment in the English theatres till the eighteenth century, when the fore-edge of the boards was for the first time made to run level with the proscenium.
One of the obvious results of the long suppression of the theatres during the Civil Wars and Commonwealth was the temporary extinction of play-writing in England. On the sudden reopening of the playhouses at the Restoration, the managers had mainly to rely for sustenance on the drama of a long-past age. Of the one hundred and forty-five separate plays which Pepys witnessed, fully half belonged to the great period of dramatic activity in England, which covered the reigns of Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. John Evelyn's well-known remark in his Diary (November 26, 1661): "I saw Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, played; but now the old plays begin to disgust this refined age," requires much qualification before it can be made to apply to Pepys's records of playgoing. It was in "the old plays" that he and all average playgoers mainly delighted.
Not that the new demand failed quickly to create a supply of new plays for the stage. Dryden and D'Avenant, the chief dramatists of Pepys's day, were rapid writers. To a large extent they
PEPYS'S FAVOURITE PLAYS
carried on, with exaggeration of its defects and diminution of its merits, the old Elizabethan tradition of heroic romance, tragedy, and farce. The more matter-of-fact and lower-principled comedy of manners, which is commonly reckoned the chief characteristic of the new era in theatrical history, was only just beginning when Pepys was reaching the end of his diary. The virtual leaders of the new movement-Wycherley, Vanbrugh, Farquhar, and Congreve-were not at work till long after Pepys ceased to write. He records only the first runnings of that sparkling stream. He witnessed some impudent comedies of Dryden, Etherege, and Sedley. But it is important to note that he formed a low opinion of all of them. Their intellectual glitter did not appeal to him. Their cynical licentiousness seemed to him to be merely "silly." One might have anticipated from him a different verdict on the frank obscenity of Restoration drama. But there are the facts. Neither did Mr Pepys, nor (he is careful to remind us) did Mrs Pepys, take " any manner of pleasure in" the bold indelicacy of Dryden, Etherege, or Sedley.
When we ask what sort of pieces Pepys appreciated, we seem to be faced by further perplexities. His highest enthusiasm was evoked by certain plays of Ben Jonson, of Beaumont and Fletcher, and of Massinger. Near the zenith of his scale of dramatic excellence he set the comedies of Ben Jonson, which are remarkable for their portrayal of eccentricity of character. These pieces, which incline to farce, give great opportunity to what is commonly called character-acting, and character-acting always appeals most directly to average humanity. Pepys
called Jonson's Alchemist "a most incomparable play," and he found in Every Man in his Humour "the greatest propriety of speech that ever I read in my life." Similarly, both the heroic tragedies and the comedies of Beaumont and Fletcher, of which he saw no less than nineteen, roused in him, as a rule, an ecstatic admiration. But of all dramatic entertainments which the theatre offered him, Pepys was most "taken" by the romantic comedy from the pen of Massinger, which is called The Bondman. "There is nothing more taking in the world with me than that play," he writes.
Massinger's Bondman is a well-written piece, in which an heroic interest is fused with a genuine spirit of low comedy. Yet Pepys's unqualified commendation of it presents a problem. Massinger's play, like the cognate work of Fletcher, offers much episode which is hardly less indecent than those early specimens of Restoration comedy of which Pepys disapproved. A leading character is a frowsy wife who faces all manner of humiliation, in order to enjoy, behind her elderly husband's back, the embraces of a good-looking youth.
Pepys is scarcely less tolerant of Fletcher's more flagrant infringements of propriety. In the whole of the Elizabethan drama there was no piece which presented so liberal a mass of indelicacy as Fletcher's Custom of the Country. Dryden, who was innocent of prudery, declared that there was "more indecency" in that drama "than in all our plays together." This was one of the pieces which Pepys twice saw performed after carefully reading it in his study, and he expressed admiration for the rendering of the widow's part by his pretty friend,
Mistress Knipp. One has to admit that Pepys condemned the play from a literary point of view as "a very poor one, methinks," as "fully the worst play that I saw or believe shall see." But the pleasure which Mistress Knipp's share in the performance gave him suggests, in the absence of any explicit disclaimer, that the improprieties of both plot and characters escaped his notice, or, at any rate, excited in him no disgust. Massinger's Bondman, Pepys's ideal of merit in drama, has little of the excessive grossness of the Custom of the Country. But to some extent it is tarred with the same brush.
Pepys's easy principles never lend themselves to very strict definition. Yet he may be credited with a certain measure of discernment in pardoning the indelicacy of Fletcher and Massinger, while he condemns that of Dryden, Etherege, or Sedley. Indelicacy in the older dramatists does not ignore worthier interests. Other topics attracted the earlier writers besides conjugal infidelity and the frailty of virgins, which were the sole themes of Restoration comedy. Massinger's heroes are not always gay seducers. His husbands are not always fools. Pepys might quite consistently scorn the ribaldry of Etherege and condone the obscenity of Fletcher. It was a question of degree. Pepys was clear in his own mind that a line must be drawn somewhere, though it would probably have taxed his logical power to make the delimitation precise.
There is, apparently, a crowning difficulty of far greater moment when finally estimating Pepys's
taste in dramatic literature. Despite his admiration for the ancient drama, he acknowledged a very tempered regard for the greatest of all the old dramatists-Shakespeare. He lived and died in complacent unconsciousness of Shakespeare's supreme excellence. Such innocence is attested by his conduct outside, as well as inside, the theatre. He prided himself on his taste as a reader and a book collector, and bought for his library many plays in quarto which he diligently perused. Numerous separately issued pieces by Shakespeare lay at his disposal in the bookshops. But he only records the purchase of one-the first part of Henry IV., though he mentions that he read in addition Othello and Hamlet. When his bookseller first offered him the great First Folio edition of Shakespeare's works, he rejected it for Fuller's Worthies and the newlypublished Butler's Hudibras, in which, by the way, he failed to discover the wit. Ultimately he bought the newly-issued second impression of the Third Folio Shakespeare, along with copies of Spelman's Glossary and Scapula's Lexicon. To these soporific works of reference he apparently regarded the dramatist's volume as a fitting pendant. He seemed subsequently to have exchanged the Third Folio for a Fourth, by which volume alone is Shakespeare represented in the extant library that Pepys bequeathed to Magdalene College, Cambridge.
As a regular playgoer at a time when the stage mainly depended on the drama of Elizabethan days, Pepys was bound to witness numerous performances of Shakespeare's plays. On the occasion of fortyone of his three hundred and fifty-one visits to the theatre, Pepys listened to plays by Shakespeare, or