British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan

By George Henry Nettleton; Arthur Eillicot Case | Go to book overview

action and the dialogue. Steele's stand on this matter is made clear in his attack on Etherege ( Spectator No. 65), and his sincerity is evinced in another essay ( Spectator No. 51) in which he accepted a rebuke from a correspondent and, as a result, altered a passage in The Funeral which to the playgoers of the day must have seemed mild indeed. In The Lying Lover Steele went one step further and introduced the moralizing element quite openly. In the preface to the play he observed:

. . . it is the general complaint of the more learned and virtuous amongst us that the English stage has extremely offended . . . I thought therefore it would be an honest ambition to attempt a comedy which might be no improper entertainment in a Christian commonwealth. In order to this, the spark of this play is introduced with as much agility and life as he brought with him from France, and as much humor as I could bestow upon him in England . . . he makes false love, gets drunk, and kills his man, but in the fifth act awakes from his debauch with the compunction and remorse which is suitable to a man's finding himself in a goal1 for the death of his friend, without his knowing why. The anguish he there expresses, and the mutual sorrow between an only child and a tender father in that distress are, perhaps, an injury to the rules of comedy, but I am sure they are a justice to those of morality: and passages of such a nature being so frequently applauded on the stage, it is high time we should no longer draw occasions of mirth from those images which the religion of our country tells us we ought to tremble at with horror.

The mixture of comedy and sentiment was continued in both of the later plays, and in the preface to each Steele proclaimed his moral purpose: in The Conscious Lovers, indeed, he averred that 'the whole was writ for the sake of the scene of the fourth act, wherein Mr. Bevil evades the quarrel with his friend.' The passage discussing the function of comedy which immediately follows this shows, when it is compared with the excerpt which has been quoted from the preface to The Lying Lover. how far Steele had altered his position in nineteen years.

The increasing divergence in purpose between the two schools of comic writing was inevitably fatal. It might be said that comedy was divided by a sort of judgment of Solomon, one party laying hold upon the purpose (to correct manners) and the other upon the means (ridicule). The first of these parties drew to it the more capable dramatic writers of the early eighteenth century; the other group drifted into the composition of farces.

A. E. C.


REFERENCE WORKS

1914. Nettleton, George H. English Drama of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century. New York and London. [Chapter IX, with Bibliographical Notes.]

1924. Krutch, Joseph Wood. Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration. New York.

1925. Bateson, F. W. English Comic Drama, 1700-1750. Oxford.

1925. Bernbaum, Ernest. The Drama of Sensibility. Cambridge [Massachusetts].

1929. Nicoll, Allardyce. A History of Early Eighteenth Century Drama. Oxford. [Chapter III.]

____________________
1
Jail.

-398-

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