Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Why Did Steele's the Lying Lover Fail? or, the Dangers of Sentimentalism in the Comic Reform Scene

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Why Did Steele's the Lying Lover Fail? or, the Dangers of Sentimentalism in the Comic Reform Scene

Article excerpt

Sometimes theatrical failures can be as instructive about nuances of genre as stage successes. Especially, a "flop" from a successful and culturally mainstream dramatist, such as Richard Steele, can tell us much about interactions between representational strategies, audience response, and effective fulfillment of generic aims. (1) In The Lying Lover (1703), Steele began with a clear aim, "an honest Ambition" as he calls it, to write a comedy that "might be no improper Entertainment in a Christian Commonwealth." (2) Apparently much impressed by Jeremy Collier's campaign against the "Immorality of the Stage," Steele says, "[I] took it into my head to write a Comedy with the Severity he required." (3) His goal of writing a rigorously moral comedy shapes both the plot and the comic style of his second play. The Lying Lover is plotted around the repentance and reform of a flawed protagonist, the imprudent braggart, Young Bookwit. The comic reform plot, which has been seen as one manifestation of the general moralization of the early eighteenth-century stage, was becoming quite popular at the turn of the century. In the early eighteenth century, playwrights brought to the London stage protagonists with a variety of flaws so that the audience could enjoy the spectacle of their remorse and reclamation. (4) In these reform comedies, all kinds of errant individuals, from philandering husbands and spendthrift wives to jealous lovers and inveterate gamblers, were successfully reformed for the entertainment of the audience. The Lying Lover exemplifies this generic trend, but it also introduces another innovative element in its comic matrix--an intensely tearful and pathetic last act. The high-pitched emotionalism and pathos of The Lying Lover's ending has led some critics to call it one of the first sentimental comedies. (5) While there is little current critical consensus about what "sentimental comedy" is, or if it can even be identified as a distinct dramatic genre, there is little dispute about the fact that the eighteenth century witnessed new important ways of valuing feeling, which appear as a loose but clearly identifiable cluster of qualities in literary sentimentalism. Elements such as sympathy for the distressed, tearful response to spectacles of suffering or tenderness, and instinctive emotional or monetary benevolence, are the basic marks of the sentimental mode and can indeed be detected in the last act of Steele's play. (6)

These elements of sentimentalism--whether they make The Lying Lover a sentimental comedy or not--play a particularly interesting role in Steele's "failed" comedy because they seem to weaken the logic of his reform plot. The incompatibility between sentimental and reform modes, revealed in a consideration of The Lying Lover's failure, has consequences for the conventional narrative about early eighteenth-century comedy. Often, reform comedies are seen as merely one manifestation of the early eighteenth-century sentimentalization of comedy. (7) One source of this confusion of genres is that both reform and sentimental modes have an overt moral design on the audience, with an aim to move the audience to reassess themselves and society. However, a consideration of The Lying Lover's failure reveals that in spite of their shared express aim of improving their viewers, the mechanisms of affect underlying dramatic sentimentalism are not only distinct from those of reform comedy but can be downright detrimental to its effectiveness on the stage. Steele's early comedy fails because, along with its other flaws, it welds together two emergent but not always compatible comic modes--the sentimental and the reform mode. The case of The Lying Lover suggests that the common practice of subsuming reform comedy under the aegis of early eighteenth-century sentimentalism needs to be reviewed and revised. Sentimental emotionalism, far from being easily conflated with the reform mode, can actually interfere with its aims and affects. …

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