Introduction: Rethinking Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Drama

Article excerpt

In 1983, in a special issue of The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation entitled "New Approaches to Restoration Drama" James Thompson called for a rethinking of the grounds of interpretation in order to "address [the] most basic and crucial questions about our concepts of history and literary history and the relationship between them" Until scholars undertake this project, he argued, "historicism [will retain] its laissez-faire character which ensures a free-for-all of contexts and backgrounds, with histories of ideas free to draw from any history and any idea." (1) Twenty-five years later, rethinking the problems of history and interpretation in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drama remains crucial to understanding the literary culture of the period, even if the values and assumptions that underlie "history" and "literary history" have changed. In that 1983 special issue, Thompson and his fellow contributor Michael McKeon were concerned with historicizing the drama in the terms of (then) recent work in Marxist theory; Michael Neill with exploring the generic relationships between the "heroic heads" of Restoration tragedy and the "humble tails" of erotic and satiric comedy; and Harriett Hawkins with countering providentialist interpretations of Restoration comedy and exploring the ways in which contemporary audiences and latter-day critics perceived the drama. (2) If some of these concerns now belong to a half-forgotten past of scholarly contention, the problems of literary history, cultural context, and reception continue to provoke debate, critical self-reflection, and reassessments of the relationship between dramatic literature and the turbulent history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The contributors to this special issue of Comparative Drama--Laura Rosenthal, Tita Chico, Diana Jaher, Jean Marsden, and James Thompson--explore, in different ways, questions that could not have been posed in the 1980s: the nature and purpose of feminism in the theater, the specter of slavery onstage, and the complexities of depicting the stabilities and instabilities of class relations. In the process, these scholars both extend and challenge what we might call first-generation revisionist criticism of the drama. In important ways, the differences between rethinking the drama in the 1980s and the 2000s reflect changes that have occurred within the profession as a whole: if Thompson and McKeon during the heyday of Reaganomics described the urgent necessity of criticism's historicizing--and radicalizing--its values and assumptions, the contributors to this issue see that urgency in terms of moving beyond the critical legacy they have inherited and reconsidering the roles played by the drama in representing Restoration and eighteenth-century gender politics, property law, and comic theory.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the critical revolutions of the last few decades, drama remains a sideshow for many critics of the long eighteenth century, who continue to revisit and recast the late twentieth-century project of examining the history of the novel. Although Ian Watt's account of the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century has been extended, challenged, rewritten, dismissed, and resurrected, its status as a marker of a conceptual history of modernity is taken more or less for granted, even as "modernity" itself has become an exceedingly vexed term. (3) To the extent that "the novel," literary "realism," the middle class, empiricism, bourgeois subjectivity, and modernity itself tend to be defined in mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing terms, the drama is either treated as a retrograde showcase for a declining aristocratic ideology or assimilated to a narrative of incipient modernization. In different ways, the essays in this special issue resist both of these alternatives by asking questions that disrupt the overarching narrative of a Whiggish or progressivist historiography. In this respect, they also implicitly put pressure on the Habermasian notion of the rise of the public sphere in the eighteenth century and its assumptions that the dissemination of print culture and the popularity of the coffeehouse created a conceptual space in which political and socioeconomic debate could take place without deferring to the demands of partisanship, class prejudice, and religious bias. …


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