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The ponderous mass sinks in the cleaving ground, While vales, and woods, and echoing hills rebound,
As when from Ætna's smoking summit broke,
Cambridge, May 8, 1736.
OCCASIONED BY THE SIGHT OF THE PLAINS WHERE THE BATTLE OF TREBIA WAS FOUGHT.
QUA Trebie glaucas salices intersecat unda,
FRAGMENT OF A TRAGEDY,
DESIGNED BY MR. GRAY,
SUBJECT OF THE DEATH OF AGRIPPINA.
"The Britannicus of Mr. Racine, I know, was one of
Mr. Gray's most favourite plays; and the admirable manner in which I have heard him say 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 Mr. 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, what
ever 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 Shakspeare 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 Mr. Gray pursued, is the best for dramatic purposes. I think myself, what 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 Mr. Gray's plan, as I find and select it from two detached papers. The Title and Dramatis Personæ are as follow: "
AGRIPPINA, the Empress-mother.
NERO, the Emperor.
POPPAA, believed to be in love with OтHO.
SENECA, the Emperor's Preceptor.
SCENE, the Emperor's villa at Baiæ.
"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 Baix, and to have her guard taken from her. At this time Otho, having conveyed Poppea from the house of her husband Rufus 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 honours. In the meanwhile, Anicetus, to whose care Poppea had been entrusted 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 Poppea; 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 Poppaa. 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,