Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 4. His dramatic criticism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VII. Hazlitt

§ 4. His dramatic criticism

An important contribution of Hazlitt is his comment on the stage, largely included in A Review of the English Stage; or, A Series of Dramatic Criticisms (1818, 1821). His first continuous employment was on The Morning Chronicle, in 1813, for which he wrote his first dramatic criticism, and, save for a few unimportant things by Leigh Hunt, the first of its kind in our literature. Later, he wrote for The Examiner, The Champion, The Times and, finally, The London Magazine. These hundred or more of articles include much interesting discussion of the theatres, plays and actors of his time. His visits took him to Drury lane, Covent garden, The Haymarket, The Lyceum, The King’s, Surrey, The Adelphi, The Coburg, The Aquatic and The East London. He wrote of all the plays of Shakespeare, of those of the restoration and the eighteenth century which were still given and of the first performances of plays of his own time. He described winter and summer plays, pantomimes, operas and oratorios. He has left the best account of the actors and actresses whom he saw, the Kembles, Kean, Macready, Booth, Bannister, Miss Stephens, Mrs. Siddons, as well as sketches of others of whom we now know only the names. As with his appreciation of literature, Hazlitt was not a formal critic of the drama and theatre. His taste was formed under the direction of his feelings. He wrote of the drama with gusto, not because it was a great literary form made illustrious by Shakespeare, possessed of formal technique and of a brilliant history, but because he liked to go to the play to see “the happy faces in the pit,” to watch the actors in their parts and then, enriched by the happy experiences of the evening to go home to think it all over. “We like the stage because we like to talk about ourselves.” “We do not like any person or persons who do not like plays.” His criticism is the vivid record of these impressions. He watched closely the entrances and exits of the actors, their eyes, faces, hands, listened to the cadences of the spoken sentences, and marked the differences in an actor on successive evenings. Rarely did he analyse a play as a formal composition, nor was he much interested in the technique of the verse. The fine speeches held him and the varying gales of passion, as they sweep the characters into this or that extremity. A drama was something to be played, and his comments took the form of personal descriptions of Kemble as Sir Giles Overreach, Miss O’Neill as Lady Teazle, Mrs. Siddons as Lady Macbeth, Macready as Othello, or Kean as Iago, Shylock or Richard III.

In this field, he was a pioneer and his writings mark an epoch in the history of theatrical criticism. Before his day, honest reviews of plays were unknown. Leigh Hunt had seen the opportunity and had introduced the new department in The Examiner, but his imprisonment and that of his brother on account of libellous publications had prevented the continuance of this phase of their work. Not only was Hazlitt the first to give attention to dramatic criticism, but he was, also, without special training for this form of writing. He had always liked to go to the play and, in the years of his closest intimacy with Charles Lamb, had spent many evenings in the different London theatres. His fondness for the theatre and his natural zest in human action were a sufficient preparation for him in any work which required the power of observation and of vivid description. As a critic of the stage, he conceived it to be his duty to be fair to the actor and to the public. We doubt if he allowed himself to express an opinion which he did not sincerely hold, or indulge in praise or blame which he thought not deserved.

  • Though I do not repent of what I have said in praise of certain actors, yet I wish I could retract what I had been obliged to say in reprobation of actors.… I never understood that the applauded actor thought himself personally obliged to the newspaper critic; the latter was merely supposed to do his duty.