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Massinger, Milton, And The Italian Theatre
by [?]

The pantomimic characters and the extemporal comedy of Italy may have had some influence even on our own dramatic poets: this source has indeed escaped all notice; yet I incline to think it explains a difficult point in Massinger, which has baffled even the keen spirit of Mr. Gifford.

A passage in Massinger bears a striking resemblance with one in Moliere’s “Malade Imaginaire.” It is in “The Emperor of the East,” vol. iii. 317. The Quack or “Empiric’s” humorous notion is so closely that of Moliere’s, that Mr. Gifford, agreeing with Mr. Gilchrist, “finds it difficult to believe the coincidence accidental;” but the greater difficulty is, to conceive that “Massinger ever fell into Moliere’s hands.” At that period, in the infancy of our literature, our native authors and our own language were as insulated as their country. It is more than probable that Massinger and Moliere had drawn from the same source–the Italian Comedy. Massinger’s “Empiric,” as well as the acknowledged copy of Moliere’s “Medecin,” came from the “Dottore” of the Italian Comedy. The humour of these old Italian pantomimes was often as traditionally preserved as proverbs. Massinger was a student of Italian authors; and some of the lucky hits of their theatre, which then consisted of nothing else but these burlesque comedies, might have circuitously reached the English bard; and six-and-thirty years afterwards, the same traditional jests might have been gleaned by the Gallic one from the “Dottore,” who was still repeating what he knew was sure of pleasing. Our theatres of the Elizabethan period seem to have had here the extemporal comedy after the manner of the Italians; we surely possess one of these Scenarios, in the remarkable “Platts,” which were accidentally discovered at Dulwich College, bearing every feature of an Italian Scenario. Steevens calls them “a mysterious fragment of ancient stage direction,” and adds, that “the paper describes a species of dramatic entertainment of which no memorial is preserved in any annals of the English stage.”[1] The commentators on Shakspeare appear not to have known the nature of these Scenarios. The “Platt,” as it is called, is fairly written in a large hand, containing directions appointed to be stuck up near the prompter’s station; and it has even an oblong hole in its centre to admit of being suspended on a wooden peg. Particular scenes are barely ordered, and the names, or rather nicknames, of several of the players, appear in the most familiar manner, as they were known to their companions in the rude green-room of that day: such as “Pigg, White and Black Dick and Sam, Little Will Barne, Jack Gregory, and the Red-faced fellow.”[2] Some of these “Platts” are on solemn subjects, like the tragic pantomime; and in some appear “Pantaloon, and his man Peascod, with spectacles.” Steevens observes, that he met with no earlier example of the appearance of Pantaloon, as a specific character on our stage; and that this direction concerning “the spectacles” cannot fail to remind the reader of a celebrated passage in As You Like It:

—-The lean and slipper’d Pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose—-.

Perhaps, he adds, Shakspeare alludes to this personage, as habited in his own time. The old age of Pantaloon is marked by his leanness, and his spectacles and his slippers. He always runs after Harlequin, but cannot catch him; as he runs in slippers and without spectacles, is liable to pass him by without seeing him. Can we doubt that this Pantaloon had come from the Italian theatre, after what we have already said? Does not this confirm the conjecture, that there existed an intercourse between the Italian theatre and our own? Farther, Tarleton the comedian, and others, celebrated for their “extemporal wit,” was the writer or inventor of one of these “Platts.” Stowe records of one of our actors that “he had a quick, delicate, refined, extemporal wit.” And of another, that “he had a wondrous, plentiful, pleasant, extemporal wit.” These actors, then, who were in the habit of exercising their impromptus, resembled those who performed in the unwritten comedies of the Italians. Gabriel Harvey, the Aristarchus of the day, compliments Tarleton for having brought forward a new species of dramatic exhibition. If this compliment paid to Tarleton merely alludes to his dexterity at extemporaneous wit in the character of the clown, as my friend Mr. Douce thinks, this would be sufficient to show that he was attempting to introduce on our stage the extemporal comedy of the Italians, which Gabriel Harvey distinguishes as “a new species.” As for these “Platts,” which I shall now venture to call “Scenarios,” they surprise by their bareness, conveying no notion of the piece itself, though quite sufficient for the actors. They consist of mere exits and entrances of the actors, and often the real names of the actors are familiarly mixed with those of the dramatis personae. Steevens has justly observed, however, on these skeletons, that although “the drift of these dramatic pieces cannot be collected from the mere outlines before us, yet we must not charge them with absurdity. Even the scenes of Shakspeare would have worn as unpromising an aspect, had their skeletons only been discovered.” The printed scenarios of the Italian theatre were not more intelligible; exhibiting only the hints for scenes.