The ladies and gentlemen of Drury Lane posted away from Oxford in a blaze of glory. They had actually behaved themselves, these despised mummers, and their contribution towards the repairing of a church was almost sufficient to bring them within the pale of holiness. “At our taking leave,” writes Colley, jubilantly, “we had the thanks of the vice-Chancellor for the decency and order observ’d by our whole society, an honour which had not always been paid upon the same occasions; for at the act in King William’s time I remember some pranks of a different nature had been complain’d of. Our receipts had not only enabled us (as I have observ’d) to double the pay of every actor, but to afford out of them towards the repair of St. Mary’s Church the contribution of fifty pounds. Besides which, each of the three managers had to his respective share, clear of all charges, one hundred and fifty more for his one and twenty days’ labour, which being added to his thirteen hundred and fifty shared in the winter preceding, amounted in the whole to fifteen hundred, the greatest sum ever known to have been shared in one year to that time. And to the honour of our auditors here and elsewhere be it spoken, all this was rais’d without the aid of those barbarous entertainments with which, some few years after (upon the re-establishment of two contending companies) we were forc’d to disgrace the stage to support it”
The success of “Cato” proved as brilliant in a literary as in a dramatic sense. The play was translated into several languages, not forgetting the Latin, and even Voltaire was pleased, in after years, to come down from his critical throne and honour Mr. Addison’s verses with his praise.[A] “The first English writer,” he said, “who composed a regular tragedy and infused a spirit of elegance through every part of it was the illustrious Mr. Addison.” Poor Shakespeare!
[Footnote A: One sees in Voltaire (who observed that “Hamlet” “appears the work of a drunken savage”) the old-fashioned tendency to belittle Shakespeare. This tendency has one of its most amusing reflections in a criticism by Hume, who said of the great poet that “a reasonable propriety of thought he cannot for any time uphold.”]
Smile as we may over that frigid elegance, it seemed none the less impressive in the days of auld lang syne, and even yet we hear echoes of the play in a round of familiar quotations.
“The woman who deliberates is lost;”
“’Tis not in mortals to command
But we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it;”
“Curse on his virtues, they’ve undone his country.”
still fall lightly on our ear. But the tragedy is forgotten, and why seek to resurrect those once-beloved characters? Cato, Marcia, Juba, and the rest—figures of classic marble rather than of flesh and blood—have all gone to that bourne whence no stage travellers return. They lie buried ’mid all the pomp of mouldering books, and there let them peacefully decay.