The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 6. Irene and its subsequent production on the Stage
He had no promise of work, but he looked to find employment on The Gentleman’s Magazine, and he had hopes in the drama. He had written at Edial three acts of his tragedy Irene. He worked at it during his first months in London, and finished it on his visit to Lichfield to settle his affairs, in the summer of 1737. But there remained for him “the labour of introducing it on the stage, an undertaking which to an ingenuous mind was in a very high degree vexatious and disgusting”—as he wrote of another’s experience while his own tragedy was still unacted. The goodwill of Garrick, whom he placed under a heavy debt by the great prologue which heralded his managership of Drury lane in 1774, at last brought it on the stage in February, 1749, and protracted its run to nine nights, so that there might be three third-night benefits. With all his knowledge of human nature, Johnson was unable to exhibit dramatically the shades which distinguish one character from another. Irene is only a moral poem in a succession of dialogues on the theme that “Peace from innocence must flow” and “none are happy but the wise and virtuous.” And the thought struggles with the metre. He could not divest his blank verse of the qualities of the couplet. The same faults are to be found in his translation, made many years later, of a short passage of Metastasio. We expect the rime at the end of the line; and, when we come on it in the couplets with which each act closes, instead of feeling that they are tags, as we do in our great tragedies, we find the verse bound forward with unwonted ease. Johnson had too massive and too logical an intellect to adapt himself readily to the drama. He came to perceive this, but not till long after he had described the qualifications of a dramatist in his Life of Savage, and had proceeded with a second play, Charles of Sweden, of which the only record is an ambiguous allusion in a letter (10 June, 1742). The labour he spent on Irene led him to think well of it for a time; but, late in life, when he returned to it afresh, he agreed with the common verdict. He “thought it had been better.” He could speak from his own experience when, in the passage on tediousness in his Life of Prior, he said that “unhappily this pernicious failure is that which an author is least able to discover.”