Plays about the Theatre in England, from the Rehearsal in 1671 to the Licensing Act in 1737; Or, the Self-Conscious Stage and Its Burlesque and Satirical Reflections in the Age of Criticism

Plays about the Theatre in England, from the Rehearsal in 1671 to the Licensing Act in 1737; Or, the Self-Conscious Stage and Its Burlesque and Satirical Reflections in the Age of Criticism

Plays about the Theatre in England, from the Rehearsal in 1671 to the Licensing Act in 1737; Or, the Self-Conscious Stage and Its Burlesque and Satirical Reflections in the Age of Criticism

Plays about the Theatre in England, from the Rehearsal in 1671 to the Licensing Act in 1737; Or, the Self-Conscious Stage and Its Burlesque and Satirical Reflections in the Age of Criticism

Excerpt

By the year 1671, the City of London had recovered from the plague and was rising from the embers of the Great Fire. The Royal Society had been in existence almost a decade, and Charles the Second, in governing by the Cabal, was unconsciously laying the ground-plan of the English cabinet system. That year came at the beginning of the era of Sir Christopher Wren and Grinling Gibbons, Henry Purcell and Sir Peter Lely. At the time, both Hobbes and Locke were alive, the former greatly dreaded by the conservatives, and the latter to be a force in the next decades. In France, Louis XIV had assembled the most brilliant court in Europe, and the grace, magnificence, and splendour of the society which produced Corneille, Racine, Boileau, and Molière had crossed the Channel and given polish and the grand manner to English life and letters. Etherege and Wycherley were at work on the comedy of manners. Dryden, who had written his Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), was producing his own brand of comedy and experimenting in heroic plays. In this year came the publication of Milton's last poetical works, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes; thereafter high seriousness was a thing of the past. In its stead, came Colley Cibber and The Rehearsal. Both were born with extraordinary vitality and both in their way were to dominate the next generation.

The theatres then consisted of the two patent houses, administered by courtiers for pleasure as well as business and catering primarily to the nobility and the Court. They reflected the superficiality and brilliance of a world of fashion whose redeeming grace was a passion for clever turn of phrase and for sparkling parry and thrust of repartee. This eagerness to gain distinction by means of wit was the driving force behind most of the comic writing of the time, whether pure comedy, farce, burlesque, or English opera; and the same ruling passion animated the conversation and conduct of the spectators. It took unto itself criticism as its attitude and satire as its inspiration. Starting as a kind of commendable elegance, it often degenerated into verbal exhibitionism and straining for effect. By Addison's time, the distinction between true and false wit had become one of the leading questions of the day, and when the beneficent effect of The Spectator began to lose force in the hands of minor writers, borrowed wit turned into the grotesque and the idiotic.

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