Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Scriblerian Stage and Page: Three Hours after Marriage, Pope's "Minor" Poems, and the Problem of Genre-History

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Scriblerian Stage and Page: Three Hours after Marriage, Pope's "Minor" Poems, and the Problem of Genre-History

Article excerpt

Standard accounts of literary history posit a reorientation, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, from the play to the novel, exteriority to interiority, public to private. Scholars describe a new set of ontological priorities, privileging an intensive, focused mode of accessing information--best facilitated by a printed page--over and against a notion of the world in which reality is performatively produced and communally experienced. I would like to contest this history, and to do so by way of a rather unlikely text for the task: the epitomically "Scriblerian" comedy Three Hours After Marriage (1717), written by John Gay with collaboration from John Arbuthnot and Alexander Pope. The unlikeliness of this counterexample stems from the traditional construal of the Scriblerians (Pope, Gay, Arbuthnot, and Swift) (1) as pursuing a quintessentially print-based strategy of satire--creating typographically elaborate tomes; becoming the first writers to make a living from the print market; and chastising "bad" uses of print and encouraging others. (2) I want to demonstrate, however, that Three Hours After Marriage in fact valorizes an improvisatory and performative mode of interpreting the world in addition to a more "reading"-based mode. That is, in this play of disguises, cunning, and quick changes, "meaning" derives not only from the diligent design and decipherment of surfaces, but from dynamic processes of transformation and performativity. Yet neither is the play simply a celebration of theater over text: rather, I will argue--with reference as well to a few of Pope's so-called"minor" poems from the same period--that Three Hours ultimately privileges a (literally--as we will see) "bastardized" mode of art, combining the fixed and the metamorphic, the textual and the oral, the abstract and the embodied. In this way, Three Hours After Marriage proposes a new genre that allows for the "printification" of drama, the "performativization" of print.

I. The Problematization of Genre in Three Hours After Marriage

The melding of media that I am here ascribing to Three Hours After Marriage does not accord with the reigning narratives of genre history. In English Dramatic Form, Laura Brown concludes that late-seventeenth-century drama, hampered by its baggage of ideology and theatrical convention, found itself unable to address a new world-order: the Enlightenment's emerging realist epistemology, along with an increasingly democratic ethos and the capitalist values of an ever-more bourgeois and imperialist Britain, all favored the novel. (3) Significantly, these same changes could be said to have favored print as well, with its emphasis on documented, cross-indexable information, affordable popular editions, and an ever-more commercially driven market for broadsides, periodicals, and books of all kinds. J. Paul Hunter likewise emphasizes many of the same cultural shifts in his depiction of an eighteenth-century literature that "no longer ... trusted ... group reactions" one that believed that "the route to influence was a private and subjective one, to be found only in private converse between a fixed book and the response of an individual reader, deciding silently and alone." (4) All of these changes favored the page over the stage.

However, Three Hours, though written long after the peak of the Restoration Theater and well into the period of the novel's "rise," (5) ultimately privileges an epistemology very different from that described by Brown and Hunter: Three Hours suggests, indeed, that we can most effectively navigate our world not only by "reading" reality, but also by staging, mimicking, and feigning it. Yet neither does the play constitute a mere throwback to the libertine performativity of the Restoration; rather, it sets out to explore the very boundaries of both print and performance.

Such avant-gardism might seem unlikely given the premise of Three Hours, which seems to embody the libertine convention: two rakes attempt to sleep with the devious Susannah Townley within three hours after her marriage to the crusty Doctor Fossile, thus cuckolding him even before the union has been consummated. …

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