The plays forming the present collection were first produced during the hundred and twenty years following the Restoration of Charles II. All have literary or dramatic merit that will commend them to modern readers, and as a group they adequately represent the theatrical fashions of London between 1660 and 1780. Wycherley and the second-rate tragedians of the late seventeenth century have not sufficient historical importance to justify the reprinting of plays quite out of keeping with modern taste; moreover, several writers highly characteristic of the sentimental group seem sufficiently revealed through satire. With these exceptions the plays give an illustrative summary of English dramatic history from Dryden to Sheridan.
All but two of the texts are from the first editions. Of Tom Thumb the 1731 edition is clearly preferable to earlier ones, for it has the elaborate notes that make this play as interesting to the reader as to the spectator. These notes are unquestionably Fielding's own work. In the case of The School for Scandal a choice of text is more difficult. For reasons given in the notes, the text used is from Thomas Moore's 1821 edition of Sheridan. Until plans for a collation of all the manuscript materials have been carried through, this text must be counted authoritative.
Textual emendations occur only when needed to remove errors in printing, but in several ways the format has been modernized. Since the present work is for the literary student, not the linguist, the practice of modern editors of Shakespeare and other dramatists has been followed in substituting the usual mechanical devices of modern printing for those of earlier centuries. The needless, and often misleading, use of italic type has been eliminated, the punctuation and spelling have been modernized, and a few changes have been made in the division into scenes. All additions to the text have been bracketed as they occur, with explanation wherever the original form might be obscured. Abbreviated stage directions have been expanded without notice. There has been some expurgation of objectionable words.
In carrying through this task I have become indebted to many friends and many books. I am under obligation to the librarians of Harvard University and the Library of Congress for granting all my requests. My greater obligation, however, is to Mr. Frederic F. Norcross and Mr. Harold B. Wrenn of Chicago for the use of first editions in the private collection of the late Mr. John H. Wrenn; their kindness made immediately accessible over half the texts needed for collation, as well as the valuable bibliographical notes of Mr. T. J. Wise on particular editions. Many stray facts for . . .