Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 4. His Comedies

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

II. Chapman, Marston, Dekker

§ 4. His Comedies

Though Chapman was well known as a dramatist in 1598, only two plays by his hand are extant which were produced before that date— The Blinde begger of Alexandria (printed 1598) and An Humerous dayes Myrth (printed 1599), probably the play mentioned by Henslowe as The comodey of Umers in 1597. Both are comedies; but neither deserves any particular notice, though the first appears to have been successful on the stage, and the second contains one or two characters drawn with some cleverness and spirit. Al Fooles (printed 1605), another comedy, was first produced under the title The World runs on Wheels, and displays a surprising advance in dramatic technique. The plot, partly borrowed from Terence, is ingenious and excellent, and makes a good framework for a satirical sketch of humours developed through amusing situations in the manner of Jonson. As a writer of comedy, here, and in Eastward Hoe (to be noticed later), where, however, he had collaborators, Chapman appears to the greatest advantage. When dealing with lighter themes, he condescended, though with apologies, to write an uninflated style; and, however he may himself have preferred the heightened and fantastic rhetoric of his tragedies, they are indisputably inferior in construction and far less natural in tone than the dramas he affected to despise.

For four or five years after the opening of the seventeenth century, Chapman, doubtless because he was occupied with the continuation of his translation of Homer, contributed nothing to dramatic literature. By 1605, he had, evidently, resumed his connection with the theatre; for two plays were printed in the following year—The Gentleman Usher and Monsieur D’Olive. In the first of these, Chapman threw his chief strength into a romantic love episode introduced into the comic scheme of the play, and succeeded in imparting to it an intensity and sweetness foreign to his character and talent. Monsieur D’Olive opens strongly; but the main plot is subsequently obscured by the shifting of the centre of interest to the character who gives his name to the piece. This cleverly conceived and diverting town gull, whose wit and coolness in a trying situation are pleasantly rendered, at once spoils the play as a work of art and keeps it alive as an entertainment. Later in his career, Chapman wrote two more comedies—May-Day (printed 1611), shown by Stiefel to be an adaptation of the Allesandro of Allesandro Piccolomini, and The Widdowes Teares (printed 1612)—and took part with Shirley in a third, The Ball (printed 1639). The last named owes little to Chapman, and neither of the others rises to anything approaching excellence. The Widdowes Teares, the idea of which is borrowed from Petronius, is not altogether wanting in power and has some characteristic passages, but entirely fails to arouse interest in its characters or admiration for the contrivance of the action.