Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Seeing Is Believing: Performing Reform in Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Seeing Is Believing: Performing Reform in Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift

Article excerpt

By and large most critics agree that Colley Gibber's Love's Last Shift is a fundamentally fractured dramatic construct that yokes together "four acts of bawdy and one act of reform"' without any attempt to conceal the faultlines.2 The repentance and reform of the married rake Loveless in the fifth act after he has spent most of his time onstage mouthing libertine rhetoric and chasing after sexual adventures is at the crux of this view of Love's Last Shift. Gibber's epilogue, in which he jestingly consoles the "Whoring, roaring" rakes in the audience that even though Loveless reforms, "He's lewd for above four acts, gentlemen!" is taken as supporting evidence of the playwright's unashamed attempt to graft a moral ending on to a fundamentally immoral action in order to please the different palates of his varied audience.3 The frequent objection to the "implausible" and "unconvincing" nature of Loveless's moral conversion is summed up in Robert Hume's comment on the "too facile reform": "Cibber is unconcerned with psychological probability, and asks us to melt with rapture when a man who has spent ten years in utter debauchery renounces his ways for no very good reason"(Rakish Stage, 169).

The box office success of Cibber's play as well as the general acclaim it received suggests that his contemporary audience did not have any particular objections to Loveless's reform. The structural and thematic faultlines that seem so glaringly obvious to us today did not seem to bother the play's original audience overmuch. The difference in the responses to the play are of course inevitable, given the different cultural moments and changing historical consciousness. However, one of the reasons behind this difference is that as modern readers we cannot even begin to gauge the full impact of the play as a performance in the late seventeenth-century playhouse. As readers, we are acutely aware of the sudden shift in Loveless's character. When his earlier rhetoric of unrepentant debauchery switches to that of a devoted husband in the final act of the play, we seem to have little choice but to accept it as a proforma convention implicit in the generic arc of reform comedy if we are to avoid anachronistic issues of psychological realism. However, a consideration of Love's Last Shift as not only text but as performance can provide us with new ways of understanding how this play functions as a reform comedy.

My consideration of Love's Last Shift is divided into two sections. In the first section I argue that in a self-reflexive gesture, Cibber's comedy encodes patterns of performance and spectatorship that establish a specific mode of interpreting theatrical character. The play prescribes specific "ways of seeing" that provide a clue to Cibber's own representative strategy in the theatricalization of Loveless's reform. Cibber's play, which is considered a "transitional comedy"5 because it mingles elements of Restoration comedy with the moralistic "sentimental" tone that was to become dominant in the eighteenth century, also shows a concern with the problematic of representing in performance these newer, more inward-looking elements. One way in which Cibber addresses this challenge is on the level of spectacle. The dramatic representation of a moral, interior serf capable of change is effected with the aid of visual codes posited within an implicit rhetoric of performance and observation that reassures the audience of the veracity of visible surfaces as reliable markers of inner worth. The first section of the essay focuses on a metadramatic scene from Love's Last Shift which posits the specular dynamics employed by Cibber to represent character on stage. The next section locates Cibber's dramatization of Loveless's moral reclamation within the field of performance and spectatorship established in this scene by analyzing the visual codes that signal his metamorphosis from libertine to loving husband. Focusing on the presentation of Loveless's conversion as a theatrical spectacle not only helps us to envision how Cibber conveyed the efficacy of his internal transformation to his audience but also challenges the accepted notion of the rake's reform as mere implausible, fifthact convention. …

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