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Crito's "impartial Observations on a late dramatick Work," from the Caledonian Mercury, no. 5456 (Saturday 18 December 1756), [2-3]

From: Hume Studies
Volume 34, Number 2, November 2008
pp. 245-252 | 10.1353/hms.0.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Crito's "impartial Observations on a late dramatick Work," from the Caledonian Mercury, no. 5456 (Saturday 18 December 1756), [2-3]

The following review by "Crito" was reproduced in shortened form in 1888 (Dibdin, Annals, 89-90) and is not now readily available. It is transcribed and edited here as illustrative of the events prompting David Hume's dedication to John Home of Four Dissertations in 1757. The possibility that Crito was in fact Hume deserves exploring, though the question remains speculative given the evidence available.

The review appeared as a letter in the Caledonian Mercury and the Edinburgh Evening Courant, both on 18 December 1756, on the day of the fourth performance of Home's Douglas at what was then openly called a theater. Until recently the theater had been carefully denominated the "Concert-hall, Canongate," wherein music was performed followed "gratis" by a play. Crito's review was reproduced in the Edinburgh Weekly Journal for 30 December. The transcription below reproduces the appearance in the Caledonian Mercury without regularizing its inconsistencies. Accordingly, duplicated without correction are the missing quotation mark at the front of paragraph 3 and the missing letter k from "dramatic" and "public" in paragraphs 4 and 5.

The language of the review is similar to that used by Hume concerning Douglas, but readers must judge for themselves the possibility that Hume was the author. With the remark below about the "charming Simplicity of Action, so long banish'd [End Page 245] the Stage" (¶ 3), compare Hume's compliment to the playwright that "The story is simple and natural; but what chiefly delights me, is to find the language so pure, correct, and moderate. . . . It is reserved to you . . . to redeem our stage from the reproach of barbarism." To the printer William Strahan, Hume remarked on the "Simplicity both of Fable and Style" of the tragedy and, to the abbé Le Blanc, on its "Elegance, Simplicity, & Decorum" (Letters 1: 215, 247, 261). Although the simplicity that Crito praises is in West Digges's acting and that praised in Hume's letters is in Home's writing, Crito praises the simplicity of action as consonant with the "the Author's Idea" (¶ 3), that is, with the literary qualities of the drama. The critical values behind the praise might reflect a certain consensus view rather than a peculiar judgment identifying Hume as the author. On the other hand, the tone of the letter is consistent with Hume's extravagant way of promoting others' works. As Crito's letter promotes the first run of the play, Hume's dedication of Four Dissertations, dated 3 January 1757, seems intended partly to promote the impending publication in March of Douglas in Edinburgh and London. Bringing up a future publication as Crito does would have the effect of promoting the book in advance. Hume's dedication has topics in common with Crito's letter: the partiality of friendship, the "tenderness and simplicity" of the play, the "unfeigned tears" of those in the audience (Four Dissertations, v-vi). Still, Crito's letter could have been written by anyone concerned in the fate of the play who was old enough, like James Oswald of Dunnikier, to refer to Digges as "young" (¶ 4). Crito could sound like Hume because Hume sounded like the coterie promoting the play or because Crito took his lead from Hume's views.

The history of Home's second play, from its composition to the subsequent controversy causing a small pamphlet war, is familiar from Alexander Carlyle's memoirs (Anecdotes, 157-67, under AD 1756-1757) and Mossner's account (Forgotten Hume, chap. 3). Hume himself tells the story in brief in a letter of 3 May 1757 that can serve present purposes with a little amplification. Drafted in 1754, the play

had been rejected by the Manager of the London Theatre, the best Actor, but the worst Critic in the World [David Garrick, in 1755]; so that it was oblig'd to be brought on at Edinburgh. I thought it proper for me to support my Friend under these Discouragements by all means in my Power; and accordingly, address'd to him this Dedication . . . . The Tragedy...