[concerning the amateur performance of Edward Young's drama, The Revenge which was organised by the Duchess of Portland, and given in her London house at Whitehall. The duchess invited the author to be present.]
London, March 1748.
Except Betterton, I never knew a player that was a good tragedian, and I never knew a dancing-master that was a genteel man; and the cause is the same, they both overshoot the mark. This is a fault not to be feared in your Grace's band; and the reason is plain; for when persons of low education undertake characters of dignity, they can only guess at what it is, and so mistake; but when persons in high life do the same, they know what true dignity is; they, for the time, only change their habits and names; whereas the former must change their manners and nature, which is a much harder task.
Besides, Madam, who so likely to act a part well, that is, to pretend to be what they are not, as persons of a Court education. Dissimulation, which is putting off ourselves, and simulation, which is putting on another's character, I take to be the whole science of a courtier. Nor do I speak this to their dishonour, but the contrary; for, through the depravity of our nature, there is so much in the human heart that ought to be concealed, that I cannot but lay it down for a maxim that, "They who know not how to dissemble, know not how to please." If this startles your Grace's delicacy, consider, Madam, what is virtue, and religion itself? It is little more than curbing the natural tendencies of our perverse hearts. If, therefore, courtiers instead of curbing or altering their passions, which they can do to admiration on secular motives, they did the same on nobler views, courtiers would be the best Christians in the world. Your Grace may, therefore, congratulate some of your friends on being so near that, which, I daresay, they very little suspected.
For the reason given above, I believe, with your Grace, that the play will be acted to great perfection; and there is no entertainment that could give me greater pleasure. But then I like not the reason you give for my being present at it. 'Since you are to preach so soon,' etc., says your Grace. I perceive, Madam, the satire that is couched in this argument; you mean, 'since you are to preach, you can't do wiser than to come to the best school for acting a part.' I grant, Madam, no preacher can come up to his precepts, but then he thinks it is his duty to do so; whereas many a tailor has acted Alexander the Great, who never thought it his duty to demolish the Persian Empire. This is the difference which your Grace would artfully sink between a Roscius and a St. Paul.
However, your Grace's tartness should not rob me of an entertainment that would give me so great delight, had I not many real tragedies, at this severe season, acting roundabout me at home, in several families' distresses, disorders, and deaths. And why has Providence ordered that melancholy tales should give us pleasure, but to habituate our hearts to tenderness, that they may not grow callous when opportunities offer, which may render our tenderness of some real use? I fear, Madam, I cannot be in town soon enough; but, if not, I am not utterly at a loss for some consolation under the disappointment of my desire to wait upon you. For my comfort is, that even at this distance my pride will be highly gratified, though my poor famished eyes and ears do not share the entertainment. For, as it is said, that Pygmalion's statue grew warm under his embraces, and of stone became flesh; so, I am persuaded, how dull and inanimate a figure soever The Revenge may make on the common stage, its condition will be very much altered under such hands; their approbation, not to mention their performance, will give it life. I beg my best compliments for the great honour done me.
-from The Life and Letters of Edward Young by Henry C. Shelley (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1914)