Friday, September 23, 2011

Judging of one Crooked Line by Another

‘…a more formidable champion than Blackmore had arisen, to scourge the profligacy of the theatre. This was no other than the celebrated Jeremy Collier, a nonjuring clergyman, who published, in 1698, "A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the Stage." His qualities as a reformer are described by Dr. Johnson in language never to be amended. "He was formed for a controvertist; with sufficient learning; with diction vehement and pointed, though often vulgar and incorrect; with unconquerable pertinacity; with wit in the highest degree keen and sarcastic; and with all those powers exalted and invigorated by the just confidence in his cause.

"Thus qualified, and thus incited, he walked out to battle, and assailed at once most of the living writers, from Dryden to Durfey. His onset was violent: those passages, which, while they stood single had passed with little notice, when they were accumulated and exposed together, excited horror; the wise and the pious caught the alarm, and the nation wondered why it had so long suffered ir-religion and licentiousness to be openly taught at the public charge."

Notwithstanding the justice of this description, there is a strange mixture of sense and nonsense in Collier's celebrated treatise. Not contented with resting his objections to dramatic immorality upon the substantial grounds of virtue and religion, Jeremy labours to confute the poets of the 17th century, by drawing them into comparison with Plautus and Aristophanes, which is certainly judging of one crooked line by another. Neither does he omit, like his predecessor Prynne, to marshal against the British stage those fulminations directed by the fathers of the church against the Pagan theatres; although Collier could not but know, that it was the performance of the heathen ritual, and not merely the scenic action of the drama, which rendered it sinful for the early Christians to attend the theatre. The book was, however, of great service to dramatic poetry, which, from that time, was less degraded by license and indelicacy…’

Walter Scott wrote the words above as part of his “The Life of John Dryden”.  Theater critic Jeremy Collier was born on September 23, 1650.  Scott mentions his best known work, and its possible impact on Dryden in his biography of the great poet.  Collier was roughly 59 when Samuel Johnson, who Scott also quotes, was born.  Collier lived nearly twenty years more (died 1726), and would have been still fresh when Johnson was young. 

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