Richard Steele and the Genealogy of Sentimental Drama: A Reading of the Conscious Lovers

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Although The Conscious Lovers dutifully finds its way into anthologies of eighteenth-century drama as an example of sentimental comedy in its early days, few modern readers would argue that Steele's last dramatic composition is a living classic. Current sentimentality takes a different form and chooses different objects of concern, while the history of response to the play is not rich in incentives to rehabilitation. The most memorable commentary on the piece, indeed, comes from Fielding's Joseph Andrews, where Parson Adams commends it on the grounds that it includes passages "almost solemn enough for a sermon" (Bk.3, ch.9). Against this unpromising backdrop I make no new claims for the work's intrinsic merit; I would, however, like to resituate The Conscious Lovers as an example of innovation: self-conscious innovation, in fact, conceived in an explicitly polemical spirit and designed to change the ground-rules of contemporary drama. Solemn sermons may have few charms today, but the process of literary-historical and generic change is deservedly a focal point for much present-day discussion. (1) In its time Steele's play figured prominently as a departure from traditional comic forms, undertaken in an environment where tradition could not easily be left behind. The pressures exerted by such novelty may be read not only in the explicit controversy excited among Steele's contemporaries but also in many of the internal structures and metaphorical resources of the play-text itself. I want to explore both the public debate and the formal structures and resources, stressing above all the importance of the genealogical idea and the related question of legitimate descent both as they affect Steele's own play and as they become stock terrain for the eighteenth-century combat over the significance and worth of sentimental drama.

It will be useful to re-establish first of all that Steele really did think of himself as an innovator, a propagandist for a new comedy, which was to replace Restoration bawdy on stage. This preliminary must be looked after because the nature and indeed the very existence of such a thing as "sentimental drama" have been contested in the critical literature. While older commentators such as Ernest Bernbaum acknowledged the presence of a new subgenre, pointing out origins, a thematic repertoire, and a possible sociology for the form, by the 1950s skepticism had set in. John Loftis, for example, claimed that while there are plenty of plays about merchants in the eighteenth century, there is no such thing as a generically certifiable "sentimental play" (Comedy 127-132). This view may be compared with the latest contribution to the relevant taxonomies from Douglas Canfield, whose Tricksters and Estates provides a theoretical propaedeutic to his major Broadview anthology. This anthology is distinguished by an excellent selection of well-edited plays and a set of somewhat idiosyncratic categorizations: The Conscious Lovers is slotted in the top-level apparatus as a "tragicomic romance" along with Southerne's Oroonoko and Dryden's Marriage a la Mode (ix). A more balanced and erudite treatment is provided in Robert Hume's authoritative The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Hume's history is, in fact, an account of generic change, with persuasive material on the passage from "hard" to "soft" or "humane" comedy as the seventeenth century draws to a close. (2) Nonetheless, Hume also stresses the extreme particularity of the eighteenth-century theatre scene: he does not deny that there are sentimental plays, but he does caution against dividing theatrical history into clear "before" and "after" periods. As he puts it, "The history of drama, closely considered, is infuriatingly untidy" (9). Such a view is tacitly endorsed in Richard Bevis's survey of drama from the Restoration to 1789. In a chapter entitled "Anything Goes," Bevis stresses the sheer diversity of comic production between the Glorious Revolution and The Licensing Act (146-178). …