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ECLECTIC REVIEW, .
For SEPTEMBER, 1811.
Art. 1. The Life of Arthur Murphy, Esq. By Jesse Foot, Esq.
his Executor. 4to. pp. 464. Price 21. 2s. Faulder. 1811. ALL authors intend, as all readers are apprized, the pub4 lic good, as their first object. And such is confessedly the moral state of society that the good intended must, in almost every particular instance, be of the nature of a corrective of some evil. Each book, therefore, may be regarded as a kind of medicinal preparation; and persons a Jittle accustomed to inspect the practice in this department, can make a tolerable guess at the disease intended to be attacked, by a slight examination of what is prepared to be administered. Such an inspection of the present very costly composition, prepared in so large a quantity, leaves us no doubt of the apprehended prevalence of the disorder called Methodism. Some of the most efficacious savatives and preservatives are, we believe, by many learned and many quack professors and practitioners against this melancholy distemper, reputed to be found in the theatrical part of the moral Materia Medica ;—and here some of its most salutary powers are combined and exbibited in the vehicle of a thirty years' history of play-houses, and their players, and their plays ,
But whatever may be the preventive operation of this laudable compound -and we will confess it is not ill adapted to have some effect in that way-we think it at least doubtful whether it will do much in the way of cure. As it would, too probably, be now in vain for us to pretend to have altogether escaped the contagion we have referred to, we have nothing to lose by confessing, that the result of the experiment on ourselves confirms our scepticism as to the remedial qualities of this work. We will own, that though comedies and farces, actors and actresses, encores, clappings, and bene. VOL. VII. .
fit-nights, should all seem to bear some very strict relation to gaiety, we have felt a prevailing melancholy sentiment in going through the story of a man, the main business of whose indefatigable life was to communicate to society as large a measure as possible of that kind of advantage which it derives, from deputing a number of thousands of its least trusty members, to form, six rights a week, the grand congress of society and wisdom in a theatre. Through a gloomy perversity of feeling, incident to the complaint under which we labour- and which we humbly beg to plead, beforehand, in excuse for any puritanical hallucinations into which we may fall--the reflection would again and again come upon us, what a pitiful spectacle it is to see a man most earnestly bubbling his mind to make sentences to be conned and emitted, in the name of Timurkai), or Mandane, or Zenobia, or what not, by the tinselled profligate kings and queens of the green-room;---what a number of important subjects must have been absent from his thoughts during that vast portion of time that his mind was filled with images of the stage, pit, and boxes ;-what a preparation for society in a more advanced stage of existence was likely to be acquired in the company of Woodward, Foote, Shuter, or Garrick ;-and what a balance he would have to strike, if he ever thought of such a matter, between the possible scantling of good done by a lit:le slight morality in his plays, and the mischief done, at the same time, by the prodigious concourse of courtezans--or, to put this consideration at its lowest degree of force, the mischief done through those circumstances and influences, by which a theatre surpasses most other scenes of public resort, in aiding the designs and 'accumulating at once the crimes and miseries of this most wretched class of destroyers.—But we will not open the way for the vast, the almost endless train of thoughts of the same gloomy kind, which would be suggested by the idea of the theatre, if seriously considered in all its connexions; nor enlarge on such as unavoidably suggest themselves in looking over the life of a man that laboured more, probably, than any writer of the last century, to promote the popularity of this grand " national school of morals."
Mr. Murphy wrote nearly as many, we should think, as twenty plays; a considerable number of which, it seems, collected, amused, and, as his aged biographer would doubtless maintain, instructed, in the Drury Lane and Covent Garden houses, large crowds of people, blooming and withered, comely and haggard, stylish and vulgar, who are now distributed in the burying grounds of the metropolis and of various other places, and most of them forgotten by a race of later frequenters of those temples of wisdom,—some of whom must have passed, on their way thither, close to the graves of their predecessors, to see the same imaginary characters, personated, and to hear the same droll or stately dialogues recited, by a newer tribe of sham lorers, wits, and monarchs :-the sanie characters and dialogues; for it appears that several of Mr. Murphy's plays have obtained a place in the permanent stock of the theatres, and are likely to keep him, for a good while to come, associated there with Shake. spear, Dryden, Otway, &c, though we have never understood that he is admitted into any such company in the library of literary persons. Without pretending tò any sort of acquaintance with his dramatic productions beyond what we are introduced to by this two guinea volume, we are quite satisfied, from the evidence to be found in it, and in such of his compositions as we have happened to peruse, that he could barely be in the front rank of even the third rate dramatic writers; bis wit being of a much inferior order to that, for instance, of Congreve, and his sentiment and passion to those of Rowe. He appears, however, to have possessed a very considerable share of true genius ; supported by uniform good sense, and working amidst the advantages of very ample knowledge, both of literature, and of the manners that distinguish the classes of society.
Besides his dramatic pieces, he wrote the life of that man during whose abode in this favoured land it was se. riously suspected, that Apollo's seat in the assembly on Olympus was vacant; the man who has been the object of the same sentiments and epithets in one part of cultivated society, as Luther in another" the glorious inno. vator," " the immortal reformer," "the illustrious restorer of truth and nature,” whose appearance “ announced the commencement of a new æra arnong mankind”-in short, Garrick. Of two other biographical works of Mr. Murphy' the present writer speaks in that kind of language which may safely be used in a panegyric on a friend, in which the excess is candidly set down to the account of affectionate parciality, or even of rhetorical ostentation, rather than of defective judgement: 'If the Lives of Fielding and Johnson had been his only works, his name would have obtained a place among the first biographical writers of his country; and he would have shared in the fame of the pre-eniinent men whose characters he has so ably illustrated.'--It is, however, as the author of a good transla. tion of Tacitus, that he has rendered by far the most service to his country, and done most to secure the perma. nence of his reputation.
The work before us commences with what was the very a st, except his will, of Mr. Murphy's very numerous series of compositions—a brief memoir of his own life.
Amidst the care of his higher concerns, he employed himself, during the last six weeks of his life, in composing a short sketch of the whole of it. He appears to have felt, and he was surely justified in the indulgence of such a sentiment, that he had a right to survive his mortal heirdom. To prove his claim to the good opinion of posterity, he thought it a duty, which he owed to his character, to state himself the merits on which he rested it, and thereby to save it from the conjectural, and, as it often happens, negligent narrative of professional biographers. He, indeed, undertook the task when his strength was failing, when the lamp of life was burning dim, and his fingers could scarce guide the pen in forming this too brief but faithful record. In some parts, it was almost illegible, and the sheets on which it is written contain no more than eighteen pages. But though the spirit that dictated it was no longer attentive to the correctness of style and elegance of expression which used to clothe his writings, his memory appears to have been perfect in the collection of those circumstances which are the interesting features of this his last work.'
No explanation of the phrase, the care of his higher concerns,' is afforded by Mr. Foot's narrative; which, in seeming to convey, in the following striking passage, a recognition, on the part of the biographer, of higher than • temporal interests, and an implication that Mr. Murphy attended to them, dexterously avoids asserting either.
• It is an affecting circumstance to consider, that the two last temporal interests which occupied Mr. Murphy's mind, were the particular arw rangement he had preconceived for his funeral interment, and the composition of this narrative of himself. He would break off from the latter occupation to visit the spot he was about to occupy in Hammersmith church, where his mother lay; converse with, and give directions to the sexton on the subject; and thus prepare himself for the awful moment which he believed to be approaching. He ordered the vault which contained the maternal remains to be opened ; examined, with filial devotion, the sepulchral scene, and marked the spot where he wished to be placed, when he should be summoned to join her in the chamber of death.'
Towards the end of this short record, and therefore when the writer, according to Mr. F.'s account, regarded the end of his life as very near, he expresses his intention .. to write, if he shall have health enough,' the life of Samuel Foote; “a man,' he says, ' to whose company I owe some of the greatest pleasures of my life, and whose memory I now esteem and value.' "That,' he adds, “if I should be able to accomplish it, will end my literary career.' He made a beginning, but his inind could no longer sustain the exertion of writing, even on a sub
ject so familiar and grateful to him. That a very sensible man, in his own apprehension very near death, should dwell with delight on the remembrance of a companion like Foote, gives, we think, a melancholy illustration of the standard of the moral sentiments acquired from dramatic studies. For, according to Mr. Murphy's own description and opinion, Foote was about as worthless as he was amusing ; and the profaneness which a brother dramatist would not too sanctimoniously mention among his vices, would put him far lower still in a Christian estimate than he appears in that of Mr. Murphy. And yet a man consciously entering the shades of death, is exhilarated by the recollected drollery of this miserable buffoon!
But the reader may be inclined to ask, whether the idea of death was, in Mr. Murphy's mind, associated with those other commanding ideas which tend to make such recol. lections distasteful to thoughtful men at such a season. We can answer only by quoting the biographer's declaration, in so many words, he was a true believer in the Christian Faith: He has written a copy of the Creed, and signed his name to it.' (p. 448.) It may be added that when, a few weeks before his death, he was congratulated by Mr. Foot on the perfect calmness with which he could converse and give directions concerning the proper arrangements for his funeral, he replied, 'I am preparing for my journey to another region; and now I do not care how soon I take my departure.'-It would appear that amidst these expectations, and while therefore he was viewing things by the light from another world, theatrical trifles did not lose in his sight their accustomed colour; for, mentioning his tragedy of the Grecian Daughter, he says—'in which Mrs. Barry acquired immortal honour.' On which we will venture to remark, that religion is capable of contributing very materially to good taste, and that if all the good sense and literary accuracy of Mr. Murphy were not enough to prevent the application of the magnificent word 'immortal to a particular performance of an actress on a stage, we know no security against such absurdity of language, but in a right estimate of the everlasting spirit, and its interests.
This brief sketch by Mr. Murphy is very unostentatious; it relates in a very plain and honest kind of style the principal occurrences of his long life, and thus concludes:
• I have now gone through the several particulars of my life, and have stated every thing with the strictest truth. I know that it is of no kind of importance; but, if I am to be mentioned hereafter, I am desirous that it should be with exact conformity to the real state of the case. When I look back, I can see, that in many instances I was too careless, and did not sufficiently attend to my own interest;