Letters on England HTML version

19. On Comedy
I am surprised that the judicious and ingenious Mr. de Muralt, who has published
some letters on the English and French nations, should have confined himself; in
treating of comedy, merely to censure Shadwell the comic writer. This author was
had in pretty great contempt in Mr. de Muralt's time, and was not the poet of the
polite part of the nation. His dramatic pieces, which pleased some time in acting,
were despised by all persons of taste, and might be compared to many plays
which I have seen in France, that drew crowds to the play-house, at the same
time that they were intolerable to read; and of which it might be said, that the
whole city of Paris exploded them, and yet all flocked to see them represented on
the stage. Methinks Mr. de Muralt should have mentioned an excellent comic
writer (living when he was in England), I mean Mr. Wycherley, who was a long
time known publicly to be happy in the good graces of the most celebrated
mistress of King Charles II. This gentleman, who passed his life among persons
of the highest distinction, was perfectly well acquainted with their lives and their
follies, and painted them with the strongest pencil, and in the truest colours. He
has drawn a misanthrope or man-hater, in imitation of that of Moliere. All
Wycherley's strokes are stronger and bolder than those of our misanthrope, but
then they are less delicate, and the rules of decorum are not so well observed in
this play. The English writer has corrected the only defect that is in Moliere's
comedy, the thinness of the plot, which also is so disposed that the characters in
it do not enough raise our concern. The English comedy affects us, and the
contrivance of the plot is very ingenious, but at the same time it is too bold for the
French manners. The fable is this:- A captain of a man-of-war, who is very brave,
open-hearted, and inflamed with a spirit of contempt for all mankind, has a
prudent, sincere friend, whom he yet is suspicious of; and a mistress that loves
him with the utmost excess of passion. The captain so far from returning her
love, will not even condescend to look upon her, but confides entirely in a false
friend, who is the most worthless wretch living. At the same time he has given his
heart to a creature, who is the greatest coquette and the most perfidious of her
sex, and he is so credulous as to be confident she is a Penelope, and his false
friend a Cato. He embarks on board his ship in order to go and fight the Dutch,
having left all his money, his jewels, and everything he had in the world to this
virtuous creature, whom at the same time he recommends to the care of his
supposed faithful friend. Nevertheless the real man of honour, whom he suspects
so unaccountably, goes on board the ship with him, and the mistress, on whom
he would not bestow so much as one glance, disguises herself in the habit of a
page, and is with him the whole voyage, without his once knowing that she is of a
sex different from that she attempts to pass for, which, by the way, is not over
The captain having blown up his own ship in an engagement, returns to England
abandoned and undone, accompanied by his page and his friend, without