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structure of all that appeared upon it. From the time of Cibber down to the present, English plays have had to do with the theatre rather than with literature.
The decline of the drama after Wycherly may be recounted in a series of striking phenomena. Setting 1. aside the growing indecency of these early plays, itself
a sign of change in literature as well as in society, the first sign of dissolution appeared in the so-called sentimental drama of Steele. Than Steele there has been no more fascinating figure in our literature. Yet his four plays, The Funeral, The Tender Husband, The Lying Lover, The Conscious Lovers, took from drama that element of frank vitality that is necessary for its life. Advised by Colley Cibber and influenced by Jeremy Collier, Steele applied to plays the rules of propriety, repose, and good manners that served him so well in writing his sketches and his essays. The second of these plays was “ damned for its piety after a few appearances. The last succeeded in spite of the fact that, as Fielding's Parson Adams says, it
, contained some things “solemn enough for a sermon." It is a long way from the sentimental comedy of Steele to that sentimental comedy that Goldsmith satirizes, yet the later form was a logical outgrowth of the earlier, and of the spirit of the times.
Not upon Steele should be placed the burden of responsibility for the decline of the drama. There are
signs enough that show us that deterioration was to be 3 expected. In the first place, the stage had become less
of an organ of public opinion than it had been at the beginning and at the end of the seventeenth century. Steele, who may be called one of the last writers of
the comedy of manners, was also one of the first of the journalists. Newspapers and periodical magazines now sprang up literally by the hundreds to usurp the functions of the play in exposition and commentary on the life of the times. Before the middle of the century, the novel sprang into new popularity, and in the hands of Fielding, himself a dramatist, rose to a power far beyond that of contemporary drama. Partly as a result of this, the dramatists ceased to go to nature for their 3 A characters, but used over and over again the stock types of the theatre.
Along with the movement for greater gentility, there 2 4 had also been a movement, coming from France, for greater regularity in the structure of plays. The old exuberant passion of Shakespeare was displaced by the formalism of Voltaire. Addison's Cato (1713) had been built on the regular lines of French tragedy ; three decades later, Johnson essayed classical tragedy in Irene (1749). The success of the first was more hurtful to English drama than the failure of the latter. English tragedy has never recovered from the debilitating influence of French “regularity.” “ Barbarossa I have read, but I did not cry; at a modern tragedy it is sufficient not to laugh,” writes Gray to Thomas Wharton in 1754 concerning a tragedy by Dr. Brown, a friend of Warburton.
For half a century, to use the phrase of Dr. John, son, “declamation roared whilst passion slept." In 1757, Home, the author of Douglas, was hailed as Shakespeare redivivus, but his was but a spark of the divine fire. The most lamentable sign of the dramatio decadence of the times was the contempt into which
Shakespeare had fallen. Garrick, whose métier it was, as Mrs. Parsons has said, to fake, not emulate Shakespeare,
corrected” Romeo and Juliet, made a pan. tomime of The Midsummer-Night's Dream, introduced topical songs into A Winter's Tale, and ended with Hamlet with alterations.
In lighter amusement, the eighteenth century had seen the introduction of opera and of farce, both from France. The success of Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728) has perhaps never been duplicated. It was followed by a flood of operas of all kinds. Indeed, so popular did spectacular and lyrical effects become that no play, serious or comic, was complete without songs. Samuel Foote (1720_77) and David Garrick (1716–79) were the most successful authors of that comedy of incident and character now known as farce. The plays of the former, The Minor, The Lyar, The Devil upon Two Sticks, are almost devoid of plot, but are astonishingly keen studies of eccentric character. The sentimental drama introduced by Steele was continued by Mrs. Centlivre, and found renewed expression in the plays of Moore, Murphy, Whitehead, Hugh Kelly (False Delicacy), and Richard Cumberland. It was to combat this last school that Goldsmith essayed a combination of the farce of his contemporary, Samuel Foote, with the comedy of Farquhar and Congreve.
Sentimental Comedy. Sentimental comedy may best be understood by following the campaign against it. Goldsmith has commonly been given credit for this campaign. It is true that as the strongest figure in the movement he deserves the highest honors for its suo cess, yet many voices had been raised against sentia mental comedy before Goldsmith's. Both Steele and Fielding had recognized the undramatic character of such plays in the phrases quoted in the last section. “Ours is all sentiment, blank-verse and virtue,” wrote Colley Cibber in the Epilogue to Eugenia (1752). And Garrick had more than once jocosely referred to the theatre as a church (Prologues to Barbarossa and False Delicacy). Again, in A Peep Behind the Curtain (1767) Garrick discusses the “pap and lop-lolly”
“ of our present writers, and makes Sir Macaroni Virtu say, “A playhouse in England is to me as dull as a church and fit only to sleep in.” Samuel Foote's plays had always been as far as possible from the sentimental order. On February 15, 1773, before the production of She Stoops to Conquer, Foote had brought out at the Haymarket The Handsome Housemaid, or Piety in Pattens, “ how a maiden of low degree, by the mere effects of morality and virtue, raised herself to riches and honors.” This was a burlesque entertainment especially directed against sentimental drama, and hailed later as a “keen satire on the drowsy spirit of our modern comedies."
Goldsmith's Theories of Dramatic Art. In spite of the fact that isolated pens had been turned against the follies of the sentimental school of playwriting, it was not until Goldsmith formulated the attack through his criticism and followed it up in his plays that anything was accomplished. Goldsmith's written principles of dramatic construction may be found in occasional references to the drama in his The Present State of Polite Learning and The Vicar of Wakefield, in the essay on The Strolling Player in The Citizen of the World, in A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy, contributed to the - Westminster Magazine” in 1772, in the Preface to The Good-Natured Man, and in the Dedication to She Stoops to Conquer. Goldsmith’s bent was not toward tragedy, and in comedy was all away from the comic types of the times and toward the writers of the age of Farquhar and Congreve. Discarding the well-known theatrical types of his contemporaries, he quite consistently went to nature for his models of men and women. All Goldsmith added to nature was the piquant sauce of his own jesting spirit. To “exaggerate the features of folly to render it more thoroughly ridiculous," was his principle of comic satire. In this he was more like Farquhar than like Congreve or Steele, having little of Congreve's brilliancy, and nothing of the latter author's finely tempered humor.
Of course, Goldsmith's practice of his principles aroused immediately accusations of vulgarity and irreverence. Against these charges Goldsmith had long before prepared his answer.
“Does the poet paint the absurdities of the vulgar, then he is low: does he exaggerate the features of folly to render it more thoroughly ridiculous, he is then very low,” he writes in The Present State of Polite Learning. And in his dedication to Johnson he contends, “ The greatest wit may be found in a character, without impairing the most unaffected piety.” Again, he ridicules the “good, instructive, moral sermons," the modern tragedies, and defends his position by saying, “ All the