Charles Lamb, "On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century", Essays of Elia
"We substitute a real for a dramatic person, and judge him accordingly."
By 1823, Lamb was already nostalgic for a simpler, and maybe more sensible, time in the arts. His basic lament in Artificial Comedy is that the theatre of 19th century London had become a too satisfying mirror for the morals of society. And crazily, almost 200 years later, I’m still shocked at how clearly his thoughts translate to this moment.
"We have been spoiled with - not sentimental comedy - but a tyrant far more pernicious to our pleasures which has succeeded to it, the exclusive and all devouring drama of common life, where the moral point is everything; where, instead of the fictitious half-believed personages of the stage (the phantoms of old comedy) we recognise ourselves, our brothers, aunts, kinsfolk, allies, patrons, enemies - the same as in life - with an interest in what is going on so hearty and substantial, that we cannot afford our moral judgement… to compromise or slumber for a moment. What is there transacting, by no modification is made to affect us in any other manner than the same events or characters would do in our relationship to life. We carry our fireside concerns to the theatre with us… We must live our toilsome lives twice over, as it was the mournful privilege of Ulysses to descend twice to the shades."
From my point of view, one of the great potentials of art is in its ability to promote a thought that has no real practical or acceptable place in society; there’s a freedom to chase ideas. Enlarging perspective, in all forms, seems ideal. The end result resembling a new set of eyes in which to reshape and rework the social world. But standing alone, what’s its real use? Do stories by themselves really change anything?
"Judged morally, every character in these plays - the few exceptions only are mistakes - is alike essentially vain and worthless."
I feel like, as a culture, we’re so accustomed to the games of narrative that it’s hard to see how any work of art has real agency outside of relation. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like, especially in these dire political and social times, that the dramatic arts are essentially meaningless when it comes to taking direct political action. I’m not saying that the arts are worthless, pretty much the opposite, but I’m fairly certain that a comic will never end a war, or pass a law, or like, bring about gender equality, not by itself. Arts have their own particular strengths, primarily the freedom to imagine; the opportunity to give voice to a notion that would be entirely impossible or inappropriate in another context, and it only makes sense to let that flourish. It’s like, when you see something that genuinely offends or surprises in its novelty, wouldn’t it make more sense, instead of crying “bad art, good art”, to think about how it’s working? Or better yet, try to say something? Obviously, Lamb says it much better than I ever could:
"The whole is a passing pageant, where we should sit as unconcerned at the issues, for life and death, as at a battle of the frogs and mice. But, like Don Quixote, we take part against the puppets, and quite as impertinently. We dare not contemplate an Atlantis, a scheme, out of which our coxcombical moral sense is for a little transitory ease excluded. We have not the courage to imagine a state of things for which their is neither reward or punishment. We cling to the painful necessities of shame and blame. We would indict our very dreams."