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THE FRAGMENT OF A TRAGEDY,
DESIGNED BY MR. GRAY ON THE SUBJECT OF THE DEATH
OF AGRIPPINA. *
“The Britannicus of Racine, I know, was one of Gray's most favourite plays; and the admirable manner in which I have heard him say that he saw it represented at Paris, seems to have led him to choose the death of Agrippina for his first and only effort in the drama. The execution of it also, as far as it goes, is so very much in Racine's taste, that I suspect, if that great poet had been born an Englishman, he would have written precisely in the same style and manner. However, as there is at present in this nation a general prejudice against declamatory plays, I agree with a learned friend, who perused the manuscript, that this fragment will be little relished by the many; yet the admirable strokes of nature and character with which it abounds, and the majesty of its diction, prevent me from withholding from the few, who I expect will relish it, so great a curiosity (to call it nothing more) as part of a tragedy written by Gray. These persons well know, that till style and sentiment be a little more regarded, mere action and passion will never secure reputation to the author, whatever they may do to the actor. It is the business of the one to strut and fret his hour upon the stage;' and if he frets and struts enough, he is sure to find his reward in the plaudit of an upper gallery; but the other ought to have some regard to the cooler judgment of the closet: for I will be bold to say that if Shakespeare himself had not written a multitude of
passages which please there as much as they do on the stage, his reputation would not stand so universally high as it does at present. Many of these passages, to the shame of our theatrical taste, are omitted constantly in the representation: but I say not this from conviction that the mode of writing, which Gray pursued, is the best for dramatic purposes. I think myself, what
* See Tacitus's Annals, book xiii. xiv. Mason.
I have asserted elsewhere,* that a medium between the French and English taste would be preferable to either; and yet this medium, if hit with the greatest nicety, would fail of success on our theatre, and that for a very obvious reason. Actors (I speak of the troop collectively) must all learn to speak as well as act, in order to do justice to such a drama.
“ But let me hasten to give the reader what little insight I can into Gray's plan, as I find and select it from two detached papers. The Title and Dramatis Personæ are as follow." (See Mason. Life of Gray, vol. iii. p. 8.)
AGRIPPINA, A TRAGEDY.
[It appears that Lord Hervey left in ms. a tragedy of Agrip
pina, in rhymed verse: see Walpole’s Noble Authors, p. 453. There is a tragedy of Agrippina by Lohenstein: see Resumé de l' Hist. Allemande par A. L. Veimars, p. 271. See Cibber's Lives of the Poets, vol. ii. p. 8.]
AGRIPPINA, the Empress-mother.
SCENE — The Emperor's villa at Baie.
“ The argument drawn out by him, in these two papers, under the idea of a plot and under-plot, I shall here unite; as it will tend to show that the action itself was possessed of sufficient unity.
“ The drama opens with the indignation of Agrippina, at receiving her son's orders from Anicetus to remove from Baiæ, and to have her guard taken from her. At this time, Otho,
* See Letters prefixed to Elfrida, particularly Letter II.
having conveyed Poppæa from the house of her husband Ra. fus Crispinus, brings her to Baiæ, where he means to conceal her among the crowd; or, if his fraud is discovered, to have recourse to the Emperor's authority; but, knowing the lawless temper of Nero, he determines not to have recourse to that expedient but on the utmost necessity. In the mean time he commits her to the care of Anicetus, whom he takes to be his friend, and in whose age he thinks he may safely confide. Nero is not yet come to Baiæ : but Seneca, whom he sends before him, informs Agrippina of the accusation concerning Rubellius Plancus, and desires her to clear herself, which she does briefly : but demands to see her son, who, on his arrival, acquits her of all suspicion, and restores her to her honours. In the mean while, Anicetus, to whose care Poppæa had been intrusted by Otho, contrives the following plot to ruin Agrippina : he betrays his trust to Otho, and brings Nero, as it were by chance, to the sight of the beautiful Poppæa; the Emperor is immediately struck with her charms, and she, by a feigned resistance, increases his passion: though, in reality, she is from the first dazzled with the prospect of empire, and forgets Otho : she therefore joins with Anicetus in his design of ruining Agrippina, soon perceiving that it will be for her interest. Otho, hearing that the Emperor had seen Poppæa, is much enraged; but not knowing that this interview was obtained through the treachery of Anicetus, is readily persuaded by him to see Agrippina in secret, and acquaint her with his fears that her son Nero would marry Poppæa. Agrippina, to support her own power, and to wean the Emperor from the love of Poppæa, gives Otho encouragement, and promises to support him. Anicetus secretly introduces Nero to hear their discourse, who resolves immediately on his mother's death, and, by Anicetus's means, to destroy her by drowning. A solemn feast, in honour of their reconciliation, is to be made; after which, she being to go by sea to Bauli, the ship is so contrived as to sink or crush her: she escapes by accident, and returns to Baiæ. In this interval, Otho has an interview with Poppæa; and being duped a second time by Anicetus and her, determines to fly with her into Greece, by means of a vessel which is to be furnished by Anicetus; but he, pretending to remove Poppæa on board in the night, conveys her to Nero's apartment: she then encourages and determines Nero to banish Otho, and finish the horrid deed he had attempted on his mother. Anicetus undertakes to execute his resolves; and, under pretence of a plot upon the Emperor's life, is sent with a guard to murder Agrippina, who is still at Baiæ in imminent fear, and irresolute how to conduct herself. The account of her death, and the Emperor's horror and fruitless remorse, finishes the drama.” Mason.
AGRIP. 'Tis well, begone! your errand is per
form'd, [Speaks as to Anicetus entering. The message needs no comment. Tell your master, His mother shall obey him. Say you saw her Yielding due reverence to his high command: Alone, unguarded and without a lictor, As fits the daughter of Germanicus. Say, she retir’d to Antium ; there to tend Her household cares, a woman's best employment. What if you add, how she turn’d pale and trembled: You think, you spied a tear stand in her eye, And would have dropp'd, but that her pride re
strain’d it? (Go! you can paint it well) ’twill profit you, And please the stripling. Yet ’twould dash his joy To hear the spirit of Britannicus Yet walks on earth: at least there are who know Without a spell to raise, and bid it fire A thousand haughty hearts, unus'd to shake When a boy frowns, nor to be lured with smiles To taste of hollow kindness, or partake His hospitable board: they are aware Of th' unpledg’d bowl, they love not aconite.
V. 19. So in the Britannicus of Racine, act. iv. sc. 2, Agrippina says: “ Vous êtes un ingrat, vous le fûtes toujours.
Des vos plus jeunes ans, mes soins et mes tendresses
ACER. He's gone: and much I hope these
walls alone And the mute air are privy to your passion. Forgive your servant's fears, who sees the danger Which fierce resentment cannot fail to raise In haughty youth, and irritated power.
AGRIP. And dost thou talk to me, to me of danOf haughty youth and irritated power, [ger, To her that gave it being, her that arm'd This painted Jove, and taught his novice hand 30 To aim the forked bolt; while he stood trembling, Scar'd at the sound, and dazzled with its bright
ness? 'Tis like, thou hast forgot, when yet a stranger To adoration, to the grateful steam Of flattery's incense, and obsequious vows From voluntary realms, a puny boy, Deck'd with no other lustre than the blood Of Agrippina's race, he liv'd unknown To fame or fortune; haply eyed at distance Some edileship, ambitious of the power To judge of weights and measures; scarcely dar'd On expectation's strongest wing to soar High as the consulate, that empty shade
Britannicus, act i. sc. 1. V. 38. So Elegy (Epitaph): “A youth, to fortune and to fame unknown.” V. 45. “ Ce jour, ce triste jour, frappe encor ma mémoire; Où Néron fut lui-même ébloui de sa gloire.”
Britannicus, act i. sc. l.