Dramatising (the) Terror
Politically motivated playwrights wish to influence the lives of their spectators – their understanding of material circumstances and their determination to change them – and therefore audiences must recognise their own lives in the life on stage. The historical plays that were the predominant new form of the 1790s tended to suggest that if the present resembles the past, then it is essentially unchangeable. The similarity was one of types rather than individuals – archetypes, to which present circumstances conformed, or stereotypes which transposed modern circumstance and character anachronistically into the past. In either case the result confirmed continuity and conformity. The playwrights who most sympathised with the radical objectives of the French - though massacres and judicial murders might shake their resolve - tried to depict their own society both accurately and critically. And the form best suited to this task was already to hand - the social comedy or comedy of manners. However, an examination of the plays performed at the established theatres, as listed in The London Stage, reveals that the production and success of new five-act comedies was rapidly declining, 1 Sheridan, having written two of the finest comedies of manners in the 1770s wrote no more. O'Keefe had written none since Wild Oats in 1790 and Hannah Cowley's The Town Before You barely lasted the 1794/5 season.
Richard Cumberland attempted nine comedies between 1794 and 1800, but seven closed after only a few performances. One of his successful plays, The Wheel of Fortune (Drury Lane, 28 February 1795), resembled Colman's only five-act comedy of the 1790s, The Heir at Law (Haymarket, 15 July 1796). Both revolved around unexpected inheritances, which thrust lower-class characters into positions of power. Colman's play was more of a farce of cross purposes than a satire of manners, and Cumberland's Penruddock, as played by