Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

News Craze: Public Sphere and the Eighteenth-Century Theatrical Depiction of Newspaper Culture

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

News Craze: Public Sphere and the Eighteenth-Century Theatrical Depiction of Newspaper Culture

Article excerpt

Arthur Murphy introduced his 1758 play, The Upholsterer, or What News?-a play that parodied a spreading newspaper phenomenon ("frenzy")-by stating his intent: "To shew this phrenzy in its genuine light, A modern newsmonger appears to night."1 He was happy to reveal the inspiration for his play: "Trick'd out from Addison's accomplish'd page, Behold! th' Upholsterer ascends the stage."2 The upholsterer in question, Quidnunc (Latin for "what news" or "what's new"), is the protagonist of the comedy-a news-mad artisan who spends his time passionately debating current affairs while his family and business are neglected. Explaining the main focus of the play, the Critical Review quoted some of Joseph Addison's own final remarks about "wrong-headed politicians who live more in the coffeehouse than in their own shops, and whose thoughts are so taken up with the affairs of the continent that they forget their customers."3 And this was not a phenomenon perceived to be on the wane: the Critical Review concluded by remarking that "we apprehend that the folly which he means to ridicule, is even more epidemic at this juncture than it was when the Tatler was first published" nearly half a century earlier.4

Murphy was writing at a time of significant shifts in the interplay between news, politics, and the public. His politically charged play was composed during a period of pronounced anxiety over a war fought on a global scale with far-reaching consequences for empire and identity, a time when the meaning and significance of news was thrown into sharp relief. The appearance of Murphy's short piece also came upon the cusp of wide-ranging cultural changes, with new entertainment, pastimes, and formats (and content) of newspapers playing center stage in the following two decades. The theater (and, to a lesser degree, the press) was central to the problematization and processing of evolving issues of identity and values. It was part of the public sphere representing a wide political and cultural spectrum in which royal control, political expression, and potential challenges to authority regularly clashed. Therefore, the theater of the time is "revelatory of a broader cultural politics, taking in issues of gender, class and national identity."5 The Upholsterer was a precursor of what Daniel O'Quinn identifies as the similar representational tactics shared by theater and press and which became "both mutually constitutive and central to the stylization of social relation in this era [1770-90]." In a period of "intense integration of culture and society," the autoethnographic qualities of the media become apparent: they were integral to the self-definition and introspection of individuals and society.6 And in the fascinating case of The Upholsterer, this was an introspective examination of the very medium itself. The play had a lasting effect, as argued convincingly by O'Quinn, which relied amongst other elements on updating the news references in later productions. Part of the effect of this continuous "updating" highlights what O'Quinn identifies as the autoethnographic qualities that go along with these plays.7

Murphy's condemnation of the Quidnunc character was not original, as he himself admitted in his opening lines; it formed part of a broader satirical attack directed at a type of newspaper consumer envisioned by some to be affecting the very fabric of the political life of the nation and of private individuals. This critique of the very early emergence of an avid, news-craving, politically engaged sector of the newspaper consumer market is a principal exemplar of contemporary narratives examining the development of opendoor politics, vigorous debate, the inclusion of sectors beyond the landed (or other) elite, and the vital role of news and the press.8 This article will place the eighteenth-century critique as manifested in theatrical plays in the context of the twentieth-century theory of the public sphere, arguing that in many ways this Quidnunc-type reader fits well with Jürgen Habermas's model. …

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