Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Cultural Politics of Antitheatricality: The Case of John Home's Douglas

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Cultural Politics of Antitheatricality: The Case of John Home's Douglas

Article excerpt

In February 1755, John Home set out for London on his trusty steed Piercy, a band of merry supporters by his side and a copy of the completed manuscript for his tragedy Douglas in his greatcoat pocket in anticipation of a production review by David Garrick. (1) Despite Home's strong letters of introduction and ample connections, Garrick still rejected the play, finding it "totally unfit for the stage" (320). Not to be discouraged, Home and his supporters arranged for a production of the tragedy to be mounted on the Edinburgh stage, reasoning that "if it succeeded in the Edinburgh theatre, then Garrick could resist no longer" (324). Performed for the first time on 14 December 1756 at the Canongate Theater in Edinburgh and "attended by all the great literati and most of the judges" of the day, the tragedy was indeed an "unbounded success" (327). It sent the town of Edinburgh into an "uproar of exultation that a Scotchman had written a tragedy of the first rate, and that its merit was first submitted to their judgment" (327). Indeed, so moved by the play and by Scots pride at the origin of this effort was one audience member that he is reported to have cried out mid-performance, "Whaur's yer Wully Shakespere noo!" thereby inaugurating a nationalist critical tradition that would find its way into all subsequent discussions of the merits of the play. (2)

Based on the old Scottish ballad Gil Morrice and written in declamatory blank verse, the play itself offers the tale of Lady Randolph and the rediscovery of her long-lost son Norval, the secret offspring of her clandestine marriage to a scion of the great Douglas clan. The tragedy unravels as the young Norval is murdered by a jealous villain, and the devastated Lady Randolph commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff. Set in medieval times and played against the background of a gloomy and dark landscape, the tragedy, with its scenes of extreme pathos and sudden eruptions of violence, anticipates the kind of gothic melodrama that became so popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. (3) In the more immediate event, Home's triumph in Edinburgh did attract the attention of London; and John Rich took the opportunity forfeited by his rival Garrick to bring the tragedy to Covent Garden in March 1757, where it enjoyed a respectable run of nine performances in its first season.

For all its eventual success on the stage, however, it is arguably the case that the "most remarkable circumstance attending its representation," and perhaps the motive for Rich's interest in the transfer of the play to London, was, as Henry Mackenzie comments in his Account of the Life and Writings of John Home, "the clerical contest which it excited, and the proceedings of the Church of Scotland with regard to it." (4) John Home, as it turns out, was actually the Reverend John Home, a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland with a parish at Athelstaneford. While the "literati" of Edinburgh may have celebrated and cried up Home's tragedy--indeed they were probably responsible for much of its success on the stage--an equal uproar of outrage was raised both against the play and against theatricality more generally by a well-organized and more orthodox faction in the church. These "High-Flyers," led by Alexander Webster and Patrick Cuming, took exception to the participation in the theater by a member of the clergy, and they instituted proceedings in the various presbyteries not only against John Home but also against all of the other ministers who attended the tragedy's performance. In short order, they succeeded in having notices of "admonition and exhortation" against the "illegal and dangerous Entertainments of the Stage" read from all pulpits of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Presbyteries and found at least one minister, a Mr. White, who was willing to be made into an example and submit to a six-week suspension from his pastoral duties for his attendance at the theater. …

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