Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Henry Fielding's Last Bow at Colley Cibber

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Henry Fielding's Last Bow at Colley Cibber

Article excerpt

Variously lampooned as Marplay, Sir Farcical Comic, Ground Ivy, and Conny Keyber, Colley Cibber famously provided Henry Fielding with much comic fuel at the start of his career. Cibber was the crass authority figure against whom the rebellious youth took up arms, but also the man who made it possible for Fielding to make his theatrical debut in Drury Lane at a time when the majority of novice playwrights were rejected outright. Fielding's rivalry with the popularizer of reform comedy was a powerful drive behind the farces of his youth and his satirical first novel, but it can also be seeing as operating behind the contrivance of Fielding's reformed rakes in his mature novels. This essay provides an overview of the relationship between Fielding and Cibber, concentrating in particular on the echoes of Cibber's The Careless Husband (1704) in Fielding's last novel Amelia (1751), in which the eponymous protagonist faces the challenge of coping with and reforming an adulterous husband. The argument presented here suggests that Fielding continued to look back on the theater--his first literary passion--throughout his life, long after he had ceased writing for the stage.

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IN April 1741, the publication of an epistolary novel marked a turning point in what some have described as the first media event occasioned by a work of literature in the English tradition. (1) An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews, attributed to one Conney Keyber, put a sudden halt to the seemingly unstoppable endorsement of Samuel Richardson's first novel. After Shamela, Pamela (1740) was never quite the same. Having learned about Shamela's masterful manipulation of Squire Booby's lust, readers could hardly see the heroine of Richardson's piece as a straightforward example of virtue in distress. Anti-Pamelist critiques rose from every quarter of Grub Street, exposing the moral inconsistencies of the original and laying bare its erotic potentials, all for a sizable profit. Even those in the Pamelist camp felt the need to defend the work from these attacks by stressing the high moral principles upon which it was founded, as well as by dignifying the main character in sequels that flaunted her restraint and poise when confronted with the temptations of high society. (2)

Henry Fielding, the real author of Shamela, had far more than Richardson and his devotees in mind when he decided to foray into the domain of prose fiction with his hilarious lampoon. In fact, it can be argued that he took advantage of the Pamela frenzy to rework the social, political, and literary preoccupations that fueled his farces and satirical dramas all throughout the 1730s. From this perspective, Shamela can be read as a project akin to The Author's Farce (1730) and The Historical Register for the Year (1737), in novel format. In the latter two, Fielding capitalized on and made fun of the latest entertainment fads (Italian opera, amatory novels, puppet shows, pantomimes, farces, heroic tragedies, and even perhaps Alexander Pope's Dunciad), and in the former he parodied the most recent cultural sensations, among which Richardson's novel reigned supreme. His chosen vehicles in the 1730s were farces, plays-within-plays, and puppet shows performed by real actors dressed as marionettes. In 1741, having been driven away from drama as a consequence of the Licensing Act of 1737, he turned to prose fiction, a genre that was starting to gain in cultural capital thanks to the outstandingly favorable critical reception of Pamela. Fielding had been a man of the stage for nearly a decade, however, and his interests in the early 1740s still remained very much theatrical. At this point no living person had as great a theatrical renown as Colley Cibber, former actor, playwright, manager of Drury Lane, and current poet laureate, who had recently published his memoirs in a volume that captivated many and irritated many more, the Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, Comedian and Late Patentee of the Theatre-Royal (1740). …

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