The Demise of Sentimental Comedy: A Case of Penitent Art?

By Brooks, Christopher | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Demise of Sentimental Comedy: A Case of Penitent Art?


Brooks, Christopher, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


In The Idea of Comedy, Jan Walsh Hokenson examines the later eighteenth century and asserts, "When the Augustans and Romantics are realigned in the intellectual lineage of the idea of comedy itself, . . . much of their originality comes back into view." She continues, "They laid the bases for much modernist thinking on the subject of comedy" 67). Hokenson explains that English "amiable humour" was emulated elsewhere on the European continent, but only when stripped of its weakest aspects, "notes of pathos and sentiment" (69). Charlie Brown and Elmer Fudd are mainstays in contemporary comic ideology, Hokenson suggests, because they can be traced back to Toby Shandy and Tony Lumpkin, two characters associated with laughter. The same cannot be said, however, for the antecedent characters of George Colman or Richard Cumberland, whose sentimental characters once dominated the stage before those created by Goldsmith and Sheridan. ' What exactly happened to re-shape English comedy as best written when its sentimental and pathetic elements have been shed?

A "conventional" answer to question might consider the Stage ing Act of 1737 that severely limited liticai satire and forced a playwright as Henry Fielding into another die novel. The impact of Jeremy lier's conservative attack on ness might also be cited as having "corrective" and sentimental works as those authored by Steele and Lillo - reactionary forms best left behind. explanations make sense to a point, another cause asserts that the form itself became corrupt. Licensing Act and Collier's writing are both causes and of an art form that followed the of dramatic writing as the closed out with the final plays of greve and Wycherley, two whose works are anthologized ally and whose plays are still in community playhouses and on stages. The forms of drama that the Restoration arguably have fallen of their predecessors; they have been to contemplate that which could not surpassed, leading to a period of tent art" that lasted, save for Gay Fielding, until 1768.

A fine working definition of tent art can be found in James 2004 essay "Skepticism, and Penitent Art." Seaton the viewpoint of George Santayana, ator of the penitent art theory, as follows: "modern artists and writers feel so uneasy about the fictionality of art that they give up the attempt to imitate reality as convincingly as possible and instead foreground the artificiality of their work." He continues, "Penitent art is art that deliberately refuses to make use of the full range of the devices available to earlier art and literature . . . because it is not as confident and unapologetic about the enterprise of representing reality as poets and artists once were" (5). Dramatic works following the Restoration have been accused, both in the eighteenth century and in centuries since, of lacking both wit and humor, and in place of these successful "devices" have called on sentiment and morality to animate their dramatic efforts. Writers of this period are accused of creating characters that border on caricature and even farce. As will be argued, such devices are artificial, even mechanical, and render those works a form oí penitent art.

Some review of the critical history of early modern drama would prove helpful. Robert D. Hume long ago examined the "venerable cliché" that Goldsmith and Sheridan had staged a "revolution" against sentimental comedy by promoting their own "laughing comedies" as a return to Restoration comedy "purged of its indecencies" (312). Goldsmith's 1773 essay "On the Theatre" essentially charged the greater part of English dramatists acrive after the Restoration with writing sentimental tripe and called for a return laughter-based comedy- which he, of course' was about t0 pomate with his 1774 masterpiece She Stoops to Conquer. However one reads Goldsmith's "Theatre" essay, as a "puff" for his own forthcoming play or as an objective review of sixty-some years of English drama, he had hit a nerve, for the rhetoric opposing sentimental drama is merciless. …

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