Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Contemporary Popular Reception of Shadwell's A True Widow

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Contemporary Popular Reception of Shadwell's A True Widow

Article excerpt

Nearly every scholarly reference to Thomas Shadwell's A True Widow in the past century mentions the fact that it was not commercially successful.1 However, there has yet to be an in-depth study of the reasons for, and circumstances surrounding, the play's failure. A True Widow is unusual, if not unique, in the length and specificity of the attack on the audience during the play-within-the-play scene in act four, and Shadwell's dramatization allowed theatergoers no way to distance themselves. Shadwell dramatized audience behaviors in excruciating detail that other playwrights, such as William Wycherley, attacked in a few couplets, and this scene partially caused the unfavorable reception of A True Widow. Equally important was the timing of the opening performance. I argue that the date of the first performance of Shadwell's play was March 21, 1678,2 and that John Drydens prologue directly linked the play in the audience members' minds to his own failed production of The Kind Keeper; Or, Mr. Limberham ten days earlier. Shadwell's dedication of A True Widow to Sir Charles Sedley,3 after the play had been rejected by viewers at Dorset Garden, represents a damage-controlling rhetorical strategy that enhances our understanding of the multifaceted functions of paratextual writings in Carolean drama.

Shadwell and Sedley

Let us begin, then, with Shadwell's own attempts to explain A True Widows unfavorable reception. In a public dedication to his friend Sir Charles Sedley on February 16, 1679, Shadwell wrote:

This play, which I here recommend to your Protection, either through the Calamity of the Time, which made People not care for Diversions, or through the Anger of a great many, who thought themselves concerned in the Satyr, or through the want of taste in others, met not with that Success from the generality of the Audience, which I hop'd for. (A2)

This dedication was written after the play failed. If one thinks of this gesture in modern terms, it would be like dedicating a film that had flopped at the box office, such as Gigli or Waterworld, to someone as a compliment. Because sincere veneration from author to patron, or at least the semblance thereof, was the predominant emotion expressed in the performative genre of Restoration dedications, a discrepancy exists between the flattering nature of the paratext and the poor reputation of the play.

Of course, dedications that were either meant or taken as mockery, though rare, were not completely unheard of. For instance, although Dryden's dedication of Marriage A-k-Mode to John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester may look like, and perhaps even may have been intended as, a fairly typical dedication, Rochester did not respond kindly. As Kirk Combe points out, the letter that Rochester wrote to Dryden about this dedication is now lost, but we can still get a general idea of its contents by the way Dryden responded to it:

I have onely ingag'd my selfe in a new debt, when I had hop'd to cancell a part of the old one; And shou'd either have chosen some other patron whom it was in my power to have oblig'd by speaking better of him than he deservd, or have made your Lordship onely a hearty Dedication of the respect and honour I had for you, without giveing you the occasion to conquer me, as you have done, at my own weapon. (Combe 145; Critical 7)

While it is not clear exactly what part of Dryden's dedication incurred this "new debt," Rochester evidently found something insulting about it. The point here, then, is that the exaggerated praise that characterized dedications could easily be taken or intended as sarcasm.

Yet no record of animosity between Shadwell and Sedley exists; thus if the motive for the dedication was not mockery, then some other reasons must have led Shadwell to dedicate a commercially unsuccessful play to Sedley. As a baronet, Sedley's estimated annual income was 880 pounds, whereas cottagers' yearly wages were about six pounds and ten shillings (Davenant 184). …

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