Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"Oh the Roast Beef of England!" an Examination of Fielding's Theatrical Method

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"Oh the Roast Beef of England!" an Examination of Fielding's Theatrical Method

Article excerpt

The theatrical satire of Augustan England, more three-dimensional than related print satires, is accomplished only in the body of the live, corporate authence through a shared public experience. The progressive versions of Henry Fielding's The Grubstreet Opera (1731), a play which was mysteriously silenced just before its debut, show Fielding consciously exploiting and enhancing authence engagement, developing a method that shifts from partisan concerns to more cultural ones. In his revisions, Fielding downplays explicit partisan satire in favor of a more nationalist and experiential politics of theater. This strategy can best be seen in two of the added songs, "The Grey Mare the Better Horse" and "The Roast Beef of England," in which Fielding multiplies referents to craft a multi-layered experience of unity rather than division.1

Scholarly discussions which rely primarily on the textual remains of a farce or a theatrical satire often conclude with a regretful dismissal. This is particularly true of Henry Fielding's satirical farces: they are not as well-crafted as his novels, not as purposeful as his essays, not as substantial as his "moral" comedies. Even those scholars who have celebrated Fielding's theatrical innovation and range tend to find farces like The Grub-street Opera disappointing or preliminary.2 Albert J. Rivero, for example, posits that Grub-street is "important to the students of Fielding's dramatic career for several reasons, [primarily because] it serves as the testing ground for many of the ideas he was exploring in a more serious vein" in his moral comedy (89). Nevertheless, comparisons to more stable, textual genres fail to account for the necessarily performative nature of theatrical satire. Robert D. Hume writes with evident discomfort that Fielding's early farces "are not great literature, but they are . . . superlatively effective performance vehicles .... In saying this I do not mean to denigrate Fielding in any way" (61, 62). Hume too separates the performing from the writing, leaving the writing to stand and fall in comparison only with more "readerly" drama.

Because Grub-street was suppressed - perhaps simply by Fielding himself, but more likely by forces in the Walpole administration - the scholarly focus has been on whether it was "political" in the sense of being recognized by contemporaries as aligned with a particular partisan program or personality. While Grub-street does echo the rhetoric and figures of the opposition to Walpole at times, it is also political in the broader sense of being engaged with the issues and debates of the day, without always taking a recognizably partisan stance. The dispute over the politics of Grubstreet tends toward the conclusion that it is simply topical, rather than political; however, the question of its politics matters for a variety of reasons, primary among which is the mystery of its sudden withdrawal. Second is its role in the longer narrative of stage censorship, and the question of whether, or to what degree, Fielding's Haymarket farces did or did not lead up to the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 - whether Fielding "set Fire to his Stage, by writing up to an Act of Parliament to demolish it" as Colley Cibber would later spitefully insist (156).

In the historical context of stage censorship, The Grub-street Opera followed the spectacular success of The Beggar's Opera (1728), which was "thought to reflect ... a good deal upon the Minister" in Lord Hervey's understatement, and the rather ham-fisted prohibition of the "less pretty, but more abusive" sequel to that play, Polly (1729), which then became a best-seller in print (Hervey 20). Officials in the Walpole administration would need no more reason to wish to silence Grub-street - quietly - than the knowledge that Fielding intended to enhance and enlarge his already popular satirical parody of the Royal family and their advisors. They need not even have read it.

In Grub-street, however, we see a cultural critique that encompasses explicitly political issues while it supersedes them, attempting to redefine the authence as a unified whole, rather than contending political adherents. …

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