European Theories of the Drama: An Anthology of Dramatic Theory and Criticism from Aristotle to the Present Day

By Barrett H. Clark | Go to book overview

ENGLISH DRAMATIC CRITICISM OF THE NINETEENTH
AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES

At a time when the English drama was near its lowest ebb, England could boast of at least half a dozen of her greatest critics. True it is that Coleridge and Lamb, Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt, did not devote all their criticisms to the acted drama, but the theories they evolved are applicable to it. Coleridge and Lamb went far to engage the interest of their contemporaries in the earlier English stage, while Hazlitt and Hunt applied themselves more particularly to the criticism of acting. Most of Coleridge's best dramatic criticism is found in the Lectures on Shakespeare and other poets, delivered during the first twenty years of the century. Most of Lamb's essays on the drama are of a discursive character and pertain to acting, though in the Notes to his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets ( 1808), and in occasional essays, like On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century, he set forth a distinct theory of comedy. Of William Hazlitt's many hundreds of periodical criticisms, those pertaining to the drama are found for the most part in View of the English Stage ( 1818 and 1821), Lectures on the English Comic Writers ( 1819) and Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth ( 1820). Leigh Hunt's first collection of criticisms was the Critical Essays ( 1807). He was for years a constant contributor to various papers-- The Reflector, The Indicator, The Companion, etc. Among Robert Southey's miscellaneous essays, some of which have never been collected, The Doctor contains a few articles on the drama and dramatists. Sir Walter Scott wrote a long article on Drama in 1810. Shelley Defence of Poetry ( 1821) contains some passages on the drama. The comparatively minor disputes of the time are reflected in James Sheridan Knowles' Lectures on Dramatic Literature ( 1820- 50); John Dennant Appeal to the Candour and common sense of the public respecting the present controversy on the subject of plays ( 1808), and Letter to the writer of an anonymous pamphlet in defence of plays ( 1808); William Hayley's Dramatic Observations ( 1811); Martin M'Dermot A Philosophical Inquiry into the Source of the Pleasure derived from Tragic Representations, etc. ( 1824); John William Calcraft Defence of the Stage, etc. ( 1839); and Edward Mayhew's Stage Effect ( 1840). Into the many literary quarrels of Gifford and Hazlitt, Hunt and Macaulay (see the latter's essay on Leigh Hunt, 1841, which contains an attack on Lamb Artificial Comedy) it is not necessary to enter. The more scholarly critics, editors, commentators, historians, of the period are "Christopher North," Hartley Coleridge, Henry Hallam, all of whom at least touched upon dramatic literature, though none produced a body of doctrine on the subject. George Henry Lewes, in his occasional reviews, and in his book, The Spanish Drama ( 1845), and On Actors and the Art of Acting ( 1875), and John Forster--kept up the tradition of Hazlitt and Hunt. Mention should also be made of Percy Fitzgerald The Romance of the English Stage ( 1874), Principles of Comedy and Dramatic Effect ( 1870), and A New History of the Stage ( 1882). Theodore Martin Essays on the Drama appeared in 1874. The practicing dramatist, W. S. Gilbert, wrote A Stage Play ( 1873). Matthew Arnold included a preface to his play Merope in the first edition ( 1858). The French Play in London was published in Irish Essays. The more or less professional critics of the mid-nineteenth century often published their articles in bookform. Of outstanding interest may be mentioned: Henry Morley and his Journal of a London Playgoer from 1851 to 1866 ( 1866); Morris Mowbray and his Essays in Theatrical Criticism ( 1882); Clement Scott and his Drama of Yesterday and To-day ( 1899); Dutton Cook and his The Book of the Play ( 1876),

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