J. Douglas Canfield and Restoration Drama

By Thompson, James | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

J. Douglas Canfield and Restoration Drama


Thompson, James, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


In the interests of full disclosure, I must acknowledge up front that J. Douglas Canfield was for more than twenty-five years one of my closest friends in this profession, so there is no chance that this assessment will be objective. Furthermore, in the culture wars that shook eighteenth-century studies as much as any other area of literary studies across the 1980s and beyond, Doug Canfield was a stalwart ally. And finally, as anyone who heard Doug deliver a paper at the MLA or any ASECS meeting would know, with his interest in a huge range of plays, his dramatic flair, and his booming voice, Doug made the study of Restoration and eighteenth-century drama (usually a brutally dry and arcane subject), fun. (1) It is my claim that Doug's contribution to this field of study far exceeds the several books and many articles that he published on the drama. Indeed, I want to argue that Doug was one of a handful of scholars who were instrumental in making Restoration drama a field as such, as opposed to its more familiar status as a minor subcategory or byway within the Long Eighteenth Century. I am not claiming simply that Doug brought the sophistications of contemporary (post-structural) theory to bear on the drama, though he did do that, and I am not claiming simply that by bringing to bear the political concerns of contemporary critical theory and cultural studies he made the drama much more interesting than it had hitherto been, though he did that, too. Above all, through his attention to form and to genre, Doug was instrumental in bringing together two very different lines of study--theatre history and literary criticism.

When literary history and criticism was professionalized to fit the development of the new post-World War II research university, drama in general, and Restoration drama in particular, fell between two stools: theatre historians, often coming out of or allied with drama departments, on the one hand, and literary history and literary criticism, coming out of English departments, on the other. The former produced monumental reference works such as The London Stage and A Biographical Dictionary of Actors and Actresses, while the latter produced playwright-centered monographs such as Dale Underwood on Etherege. (2) It was not just the interests and methods that differed but the object of study itself, for theatre historians studied the texts and figures obviously important to the development of the institution, preeminently David Garrick. Literary critics would not have been caught dead writing an interpretive essay about Garrick's The Country Girl, but stuck religiously to the big three: Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve, occasionally Dryden, and then almost nothing else on up to Sheridan. The former were interested in theatres and actual production--dramatic trends and developments--in what succeeded on the stage, and how. As was typical for English studies of the time, literary critics had little interest in what was successful then (the Thomases Shadwell or Durfey), but rather in what "stood the test of time," indisputable literary greatness, the best that was thought and writ. As many have argued, this pattern owes more to literary criticism as an exercise in taste than it does to literary history, and the difference is nowhere better instantiated than in the large body of work on Congreve's The Way of the World, a play that had a miniscule initial run and precious few revivals, but came to be regarded as the finest example of wit comedy in the twentieth century--an important play now but not then. As Julie Stone Peters has shown, through successive revisions Congreve turned The Way of the World increasingly into a printed text to be read--a literary, not a theatrical, masterpiece. (3) So while theatre historians looked to the wide purview of plays produced and reproduced across the period, literary critics focused on a narrow body of the "best" plays by the three "best" playwrights--for all intents and purposes, The Man of Mode, The Country Wife, and The Way of the World. …

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