Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

George Lillo and the Victims of Economic Theory(1)

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

George Lillo and the Victims of Economic Theory(1)

Article excerpt

Most analyses of George Lillo's drama either mention in passing or simply ignore the fact that Lillo adapted his plays from extant works written for a popular audience, rather than writing them from scratch or deriving them from loftier sources, as many of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors did. But although Lillo's plots were not original, the material that Lillo chose to adapt and the manner in which he adapted it reveal much about his stance as social critic and his method as a playwright. Lillo's use of "low" subject matter participates in a larger commitment to what we would now call realism, as does, for example, his preference for speech-patterned prose--often hackneyed by design--over traditional dramatic verse.(2) Lillo, a jeweler by trade and evidently unashamed of it, read his sources through the "lens" of a social affiliation disavowed by dramatic tradition. A product of and participant in the European capitalist market, Lillo portrayed the victors and the victims of the mercantile system. His specialized knowledge became the wedge by which he opened and entered old texts, investing them with new socio-economic implications.

Lillo deliberately valorizes the ordinary on epistemological, formal, and thematic levels. The principal subject of this essay, The London Merchant (1731), has its origins in humble sources, for example the broadside "The Excellent Ballad of George Barnwell" (1680?) and the moral tract Youth's Warning Piece (1730). Famously, the tragic protagonist, George Barnwell, is a long way from Aristotelian "greatness," the more strikingly given the prevalence of the Aristotelian strain in eighteenth-century dramatic theory. But the play's origins and its anti-Aristotelian bent do not explain Lillo's interests; rather, they facilitate Lillo's expression of them. In what follows, I argue that Lillo, adapting raw material from and lionizing the subjects of the cheap texts that he had obviously read, presents a focussed consideration of mercantile theory in order to argue against the dominant trend in economics most famously explicated in the work of the theorist John Law (1671-1720).

The London Merchant concerns the temptation and fall of the apprentice George Barnwell, who becomes the customer of the prostitute Millwood, a sexual capitalist whose relationship with Barnwell leads him first to commit theft and ultimately to commit parricide. The play considers the impact of ungoverned and unprincipled capitalism on people who, for reasons of gender or birth, were capitalism's victims. Barnwell's story has been told by other critics; my interest is in Millwood's. Through this character, Lillo explores the constructedness of gender and dramatizes the disparity between men and women and the social consequences of women's disenfranchisement from the economic base--more the stuff of Shaw and Ibsen than of (say) Steele and Rowe, with their maidens in distress and their strong male saviors. Millwood's private life, the basis of her forays into capitalism, becomes the public and financial motive for the actions that determine the play's outcome. Agency in the play revolves around Millwood, and Millwood is the touchstone for Lillo's theory of economics.

Oddly, however, not much has been said about Lillo's position with respect to the economic theorists of his day, although Richard E. Brown and David Wallace have addressed the matter in general terms. We would do well to consider in particular the possibility of an intellectual relationship between Lillo and Law, one of the most influential economists of the early 1700s and a man who may have been known to Lillo during the latter's tenure as a diamond dealer in his native Holland.(3) Law, who had revolutionized economic practices in France and Holland, founded his own bank in Amsterdam and ran it on the principles enumerated in his work, Money and Trade (1709). One of the work's guiding principles is that "money is not the value for which goods are exchanged, but the value by which they are exchanged; the use of money is to buy goods and silver, whilst money is of no other use" (qtd. …

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