Robert Gould's Attacks on the London Stage, 1689 and 1709: The Two Versions of "The Playhouse: A Satyr"

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Scholars have paid astonishingly little attention to Robert Gould's "The Playhouse: A Satyr," first published in a collection of his poems in 1689 and reissued in 1709 shortly after his death in a longer and significantly revised version. Montague Summers reprinted the 1709 text as an appendix to The Restoration Theatre in 1934, but neither version of the poem has been much consulted or cited by theatre historians. There are three obvious reasons for this. Gould was a brutally effective satirist, but not a good poet by twenty-first century standards; his fiercely moral views of drama and theatre have led to his being classified as an anti-theatrical propagandist; and his viciously negative accounts of such noted performers as Thomas Betterton and Elizabeth Barry have repelled and irritated virtually all readers. Why then should we resurrect these neglected verses? I would suggest that we have two good reasons for doing so. Their gritty invective is in fact representative of an important kind of satire popular in the later seventeenth century, satire of a sort that is now only starting to get critical attention. (1) Their principal value, however, lies less in their style or in their exemplification of a particular type of Restoration satire, than in the details of their content. I shall argue that "The Playhouse: A Satyr" is in fact an important primary source for students of English drama and theatre in the period ca. 1675-1710.

As a poem, as opposed to as a source of information on the theatre, "The Playhouse" belongs firmly to the tradition of satire as attack--and in particular, abusive attack. Surveying and trying to categorize Carolean satire, Robert D. Hume says "One gets a sense of satire as something nasty and savage, expressing ill-will and hostility." (2) He makes a clear distinction between this type of satire and Augustan satire which claims to be motivated by a desire to reform or morally improve its targets. The high-toned, magisterial view of satire offered by Dryden in his oft-quoted "Discourse" of 1692 is a world away from the vicious, personal, abusive poems written by the hundreds during the late seventeenth century. (3) As Hume observes, such poems seem "designed to hurt, to damage, and to demean." While Gould bemoans the fact that both plays and players have become degenerate, offering unfavorable comparisons with the glories of the past, he makes no attempt whatsoever to propose a remedy for the ills which he perceives. Gould certainly claims a moral basis for the hostilities which he expresses, but this is abusive and destructive satire, not corrective satire. If one is looking for context, one turns not to Dryden's "Discourse," or Pope, but rather Catullus' invectives, or to Skelton, Cleveland, and Oldham (and in a later period, to Churchill and "Peter Pindar").

"The Playhouse" contains highly specific, much neglected commentary on plays, playwrights, actors, and audience. Unlike most anti-theatrical writers, Gould was definitely a regular playgoer, thoroughly familiar with playhouse practice. He was also a produced (if unsuccessful) playwright. However hostile his assessments, his poem contains quite a lot of useful reception information, and insofar as the contents are factual rather than evaluative, they seem to be quite accurate. Gould may be pompous, priggish, and hateful, but he appears to know whereof he spoke. The only significant scholarship concerned with Gould's life and works is a rather mechanical life-and-works dissertation of two generations ago by E. H. Sloane. (4) Because "The Playhouse: A Satyr" was not separately published, it did not get an entry in Arnott and Robinson's English Theatrical Literature (1970), but it is actually a far richer source of contemporary dramatic and theatrical detail than many of the seventeenth-century items to be found there.

A brief account of Gould may be in order before I analyze his satire. …