The idea of the historical or chronological continuity of literary forms, their origins, their development, and their transmutations is a commonplace in literary studies. It is equally a commonplace, of course, that literature is an expression of the human being, his environment, his feelings, his deepest convictions, and the intellectual circumstances of his place in time. These, like the literary forms in which they are embodied, are marked by the same pattern of growth, development, and modification. But while it is true that an idea or emotion may be expressed in any literary genre, the material upon which a writer draws is basically and eternally the same; it is the experience of the human race. And even in literature of a decidedly inferior order the fact is inescapable that some part of that same vast reservoir is being tapped. The poetaster who hymns the beauty of a tree or the joys of a mother as she contemplates her child has not, by very definition, produced poetry, but he has touched an audience which is ready for, and appreciative of, his limited capacities. Good literature always, and bad writing often, both have their roots in something durable; failure of adequate and authentic expression is only a matter of individual talent or, sometimes, the deliberate exaggeration of some fundamental aspect of human nature. Thus, to take the first example that suggests itself, love and honor can and have been treated with dignity and verisimilitude, but in the heroic play of the Restoration they have been so distorted and magnified that the results cannot be literature of lasting excellence. That Dryden succeeded with the genre to the point of producing plays, or parts of plays, which are still read with pleasure does not alter the fact that the end product is recognized as something artificial, foreign to human nature as we know it. The subject of a heroic play is true, the treatment is false. Nor would anybody argue seriously that the heroic play, whatever its origins, flourished for a few years because Englishmen of the Restoration were more preoccupied with nice questions of love and honor than Englishmen of the first Elizabeth's reign or, indeed, than continental Europeans of the sixteenth, seventeenth, or any other century.
Sentimental drama, like the heroic play, is a debased literary genre, incapable of producing literature of any marked degree of excellence. It is artificial; it exaggerates and distorts human nature and emotions; and it is conceived in terms of a view of life which is absolutely inconsistent with reality. Yet many sentimental plays enjoyed great popularity in their day, and one cannot ignore the very real fact that the genre was taken seriously. A few playwrights, it may also be granted, were probably . . .