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Drama of the Eighteenth Century. The stage history of the Eighteenth Century begins with the “ Queen Anne Drama ” and ends with the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Within this period is placed the rise and fall of the Comedy of Sentiment and the perfecting of the Comedy of Manners. The latter reached its highest development in the three plays included in this book. The story of dramatic literature is, of course, continuous; there are in reality no definite breaks whereby the subject may be neatly separated into exact divisions. But certain tendencies appear during certain periods, and these clearly set off various phases of the drama. Thus, we may say that a distinct epoch in the history of the English stage falls within the period 1700-1779, the last being the year of Sheridan's Critic.
The “ Restoration Drama." To understand eighteenthcentury comedy we must first turn to what is known as the "Restoration Drama." The dramatic history of the Elizabethan Age — the greatest in our annals ended with the closing of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642. After that the Civil War and the Commonwealth shut out all opportunity for plays or playwrights. But when the “Restoration” took place, the return of Charles II in 1660 - the theaters were again thrown open, two acting companies were organized, and play-writers found a continuous demand for their work. We can mention here only a few authors, as indicating the general tendencies of the time.
Dramatists. The most successful form of drama was the Comedy of Manners. It had been originated by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's friend, and limited its subjectmatter to the treatment of the superficial behavior of society. With the Restoration dramatists it enters upon a period of extraordinary brilliancy, but also of marked licentiousness. The most notable names are those of Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar. All showed ease of presentation and a sustained vivacity of dialogue and action; but they manifested also an unsound morality. “The heroes and heroines,” says Macaulay, “have a moral code of their own, an exceedingly bad one code actually received and obeyed by great numbers of people.” Goldsmith and Sheridan revived the traditional brilliancy of these writers, while avoiding the elements of coarseness.
John Dryden (1631-1700), “ Glorious John," was the representative dramatist of the period, writing fine tragedy in All for Love, and excellent comedy in The Spanish Friar. The more pretentious side of his work was attacked in a most interesting burlesque called The Rehearsal, written by the Duke of Buckingham and others, and acted in 1671. This play is full of “local hits," and unsparingly ridicules the dramatists of the time.
Jeremy Collier. The coarseness of the Restoration comedy presently aroused protest. In 1698 Jeremy Collier published A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. His attack, ill-balanced though it was, coincided with an awakening public sentiment and gave a strong impetus to the moral re
generation of the theater. Hence, the sound qualities of the Restoration comedy — the wit, the vigor, the conversational brilliancy — remained, while the unhealthy moral atmosphere
died with the environment which it reflected.
The“ Queen Anne Drama.” The reign of Queen Anne 1702–1714) was marked by some interesting dramatic work. Nicholas Rowe, the compiler (in 1709) of the first critical edition of Shakespeare's plays, tried to follow the example of the master-dramatist and "hold the mirror up to nature.” But the principal tendencies were decidedly classical; that is, chiefly in the direction of careful rule and regularity. The foremost example of the type is seen in the Cato of Joseph Addison (1672-1719). On this play, influential in its time, Dr. Johnson made his usual sane comment :
"It is rather a poem in dialogue than a drama, rather a succession of just sentiments in elegant language than a representation of natural affections, or of any state probable or possible in human life. ... The events are expected without solicitude, and are remembered without joy or sorrow.” The same great critic said that the vogue of Cato resulted in "the use of dialogue too declamatory, of unaffecting elegance, and chill philosophy.” That it was a success is a striking sign of the artificiality of the age.
Reaction. A reaction against artificiality was not long in coming. It found strong expression in the "pantomime,” long familiar to the stage but now taking on new glory under the skillful hand of one John Rich. His work was extremely popular and possessed features which were cleverly satirized by Pope in his Dunciad:
“He look’d, and saw a sable Sorc'rer rise,
“ The Beggar's Opera.” The reaction was even better illustrated by The Beggar's Opera, written by John Gay and produced in 1728. The Italian opera had become popular in London early in the century and Gay used its machinery to develop an idea of his own. In his opera the author is supposed to be an inmate of Newgate, the famous London prison. The hero is Captain Macheath, a highway robber. Other characters are jailers, turnkeys, and various representatives of low life. The author appears on the stage from time to time with advice and suggestions. “I have introduced," he says, “the similes that are in all your celebrated operas: the Swallow, the Moth, the Bee, the Ship, the Flower, etc. I have a prison scene which the ladies always reckon charmingly pathetic.” The close amusingly satirizes the conventional " happy ending so popular on the stage. Captain Macheath has been captured and is about to be hanged. But, as a Player tells the Beggar,“ this is a downright deep Tragedy. The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily." This objection, the Beggar replies, “is very just; and is easily removed. For you must allow, that in this kind of Drama, 'tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about. So — you Rabble there - run and cry a Reprieve — let the prisoner be brought back to his Wives in Triumph.”
The success of The Beggar's Opera was phenomenal. Dean Swift wrote from Dublin : “ We are as full of it as London can be; continually acting, and Houses crammed, and the Lord Lieutenant several times there laughing his heart out." Gay's work has enjoyed a more than temporary fame. It has proved well adapted for revival, and with its charming music and amusing situations has won marked success of recent years both in England and America.
Burlesques. Clever writers were not slow to seize the opportunity of attacking the stilted tragedy of the day. Henry Fielding had a long dramatic career before he became a novelist. In 1730 he wrote an amusing burlesque with an elaborate title: - The Tragedy of Tragedies, or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great ... with the Annotations of H. Scriblerus Secundus. The “ annotations” were directed in a serio-comic vein against the critical controversies of the day. Another good burlesque was that of Henry Carey – Chrononhotonthologos : Being
: the Most Tragical Tragedy ever Tragediz'd by any Company of Tragedians. The mock heroic note may be illustrated by the opening lines :
Where left you Chrononhotonthologos ?” A second burlesque by Fielding was named Pasquin. Here the author introduced rehearsals of both a mock tragedy and a mock comedy. It was a “satire on the times, and hit out right and left at political corruption, contemporary manners, and contemporary taste in the