THE FAMILY OF FARCE
THE ENGLISH GENIUS, IT HAS BEEN SAID, IS IMPATIENT OF rule; it cares little for fixed categories, and owes some of its happiest achievements to the union of incompatibles. There is no need to seek evidence from Shakespeare's full and unwithdrawing hand, for the first masterpiece of our stage, the Wakefield Shepherds, is a perfect illustration. In its humour and its pathos, its beauty and its human kindness, its broad intrigue and winning piety, this play eludes classification; and the frequency with which it is described as a farce suggests that even British critics never will be slaves to a systematic dichotomy.
But it is one thing to evade the rigour of rule, and quite another to muddle through without it. In England, as elsewhere in Europe, the serious drama, cradled in ritual and nourished on holy writ, gradually forsook the cathedral for the market-place. Without ceasing to awaken the emotions of faith and the memories of childhood, it broadened to the business of the secular world and began to draw life from the life around it. But it remained severely limited by the character both of its performers and of its subject. Guilds of artificers, presenting in loose association the leading episodes in the story of men and of angels, might indeed produce work of genuine vitality, but they could not discriminate and develop a variety of dramatic forms. Nor, however their homely imagination might play with detail, could they win free from the gigantic cycle of sacred history. Their work was stunted by its dependence upon a traditional plot of unwieldy dimensions and overshadowing interest.
In France, if we may judge from the somewhat desultory pre-fifteenth-century records, the early theatre possessed a wealth of dramatic forms and a range of dramatic invention unparalleled in England. There, where the language of the people had never lost its literary standing, the stage