British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan

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

MID-EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY DRAMA (1730-1770)

NO TWO of the plays chosen to illustrate English drama in the middle of the eighteenth century can profitably be discussed together. This fact is an index of the lack of integration which is evident in the period, during which some of the older trends were followed without producing plays of great distinction, and some new experiments were attempted without perfecting the types which they initiated. Several circumstances combined to discourage the writing of either high comedy or great tragedy. One of these was the increasingly strict supervision of the theatre by the government. Another was the rise of the English novel, which absorbed the energies of several writers of whom some, at least, might otherwise have turned their attention to the drama. But perhaps most important of all was the attitude of the public. The stage, indeed, was probably more popular than ever before, but it was the actor rather than the playwright who was the center of interest. Cibber, Macklin, Peg Woffington, Garrick and others made for themselves names which have not been forgotten after two centuries. But the audiences apparently cared little whether the pieces these actors performed were new plays of no great merit, or old plays, good or mediocre. There was, consequently, no external stimulus to urge a dramatic writer to excel.

Five plays of different types have been chosen to illustrate this 'Garrick era' of the English stage. No generalization can be made which will apply to all five: it will be best to consider each in its chronological order, for want of any more significant arrangement.

HENRY FIELDING ( 1707-1754), whose reputation now rests upon his novels, especially Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, began his literary career as a dramatist and continued it as a journalist. He was descended from a well-to-do county family, but was forced by financial reverses to make his own way from his twenty-first year. He began by turning out farces to supply the popular demand, wrote a few longer comedies, and even attempted some adaptations from Molière. He also worked the vein of political satire which Gay had tapped in The Beggar's Opera, at first attacking general corruption in politics, but later concentrating his fire upon the administration of Walpole. This course had important effects upon both his own career and the history of the British theatre, for Walpole, irritated by constant criticism, and dissatisfied with the extent of the government's control over the stage, finally brought about the passage of the Licensing Act of 1737. This law gave statutory authority to the Lord Chamberlain's power of forbidding any theatrical production whenever he chose to do so, without providing any machinery for appeals from his decisions. This extraordinary power, which still exists, not only halted Fielding's theatrical career but has been the cause of endless difficulties for later British dramatists.

The play of Fielding's which is included in this collection, however, falls within the classifications of neither farce nor political satire; it is a dramatic burlesque, the first notable successor to The Rehearsal. All that it is necessary to say of the type has already been said in connection with Buckingham's play; this particular specimen shows that many of the faults of the heroic drama and ranting tragedy still survived to be criticized, and that Fielding was an adept at satire even in his early twenties. The burlesque was first produced in 1730, as Tom Thumb, and upon its success was lengthened from two to three acts and brought out anew in 1731, under the name of The Tragedy of Tragedies. It proved a welcome novelty in the familiar field of The Rehearsal, which, with revisions, had held the stage since its first appearance nearly sixty years earlier, and, like it, remained in the repertories of the London theatres until both burlesques yielded pride of place to Sheridan's Critic in 1779.

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