TRAGEDY during the early decades of the eighteenth century was an extension, in a weakened form, of later Restoration tragedy. It attracted the attention and efforts of several major writers and of many minor ones, but unfortunately neither major nor minor authors, with one exception, displayed any natural bent for dramatic composition. Moreover, as the period progressed, the moralizing and sentimentalizing forces which had begun to influence the comedy of the period made headway also in the tragedy, and with less opposition, since both tendencies were already present in later Restoration tragedy. The unities and other neo-classical 'rules' were generally assumed as the basis of dramatic writing, but in practice they were frequently slighted even by those who purported to do them honor. This state of affairs may have been furthered to some extent by the increasing homage given to Shakespeare, and to the doctrine, expressed by Dryden in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, and echoed by later writers, which permitted English playwrights certain liberties that were in accord with the national temperament. The natural anti-French feeling which resulted from the War of the Spanish Succession, and which found expression in many prologues and epilogues, may also have tended to weaken the French authority. Had any English writer appeared with a new and positive theory of drama, something of importance might have been accomplished: but as no such writer did make his appearance, English tragedy merely drifted.
Among the best-known writers of tragedy between 1700 and 1730 were (in roughly chronological order) Dennis, Rowe, Addison, Young, and Thomson. Of these five only Rowe could have survived in literary history on the merits of his tragedies: Dennis is now remembered as a critic, Addison as an essayist, and Young and Thomson as poets.
There has been some misunderstanding about the relationship of JOSEPH ADDISON ( 1672-1719) and of his famous play, Cato, to the dramatic history of his time. His friend and literary executor, Thomas Tickell, gives us some important information about its composition:
The tragedy of Cato appeared in public in the year 1713, when the greatest part of the last act was added by the author of the foregoing, which he had kept by him for many years. He took up a design of writing a play upon this subject, when he was young at the University [ Oxford], and even attempted something in it there, though not a line as it now stands. The work was performed by him in his travels, and retouched in England, without any formed resolutions of bringing it upon the stage, till his friends of the first quality and distinction prevailed with him to put the last finishing to it, at a time when they thought the doctrine of liberty very seasonable.
According to this account, then, the play was conceived before 1699, and largely written between 1699 and 1703, while Addison was still under academic influences, and before he had had any great contact with the literary world of London. It is possible to detect in Cato classical, as well as neo- classical influences: in particular, there seem to be traces of the direct influence of Seneca, as well as of the indirect influence through the French tradition. Cato seems to have been originally designed as closet drama: it has the coldness, the rhetoric, the didacticism, the lack of dramatic movement, even the political allusions of the Roman author.
The play was (and still is) generally held up as a model of 'regular' tragedy. The unities of time and place are observed, indeed -- the latter to an extent that brings about some ludicrous situations -- but the more important unity of action is violated by the introduction of a sub-plot, intended to supply the 'love interest,' which is attached to the main theme by the slenderest of threads. Moreover, while the death of Marcus and the suicide of Cato take place off-stage, the killing of Sempro-