Allardyce Nicoll, British Drama: An Historical Survey from the Beginnings to the Present Time (London: George Harrap 1925; 5th rev. edn. 1962)

Chapter V: Drama in the Eighteenth Century - [sect.:] Comedy’s Temporary Revival, p.189ff.

[S]entimental touches appear in the plays of Arthur Murphy, yet he too has three comedies, The Way to Keep Him (1760), All in the Wrong (1761), and Know Your Own Mind (1777), in which there is an evident effort to preserve the integrity of the comic tradition. While the Cumberlands and Kellys and Holcrofts were engaged in making their distressed heroines talk in terms far removed from those of ordinary conversation, he can introduce his lively Lady Bell reciting part of a love-lyric:

Yes, I’m in love, I own it now, And Celia has undone me; / And yet, I swear, I can’t tell how / The pleasing plague stole on me. / What would I give to have some miserable swain talk in that style tome? “Belinda has undone me!” Charming!
Miss Neville. A lively imagination is a blessing, and you are happy, Lady Bell.
Lady Bell. I am so. But then I am not talked of. I am losing my time.
Lady Jane. Why, you bold creature! I hate to hear you talk with so much intrepidity.
Lady Bell. Prudery, my dear sister, downright prudery! I am not for making mysteries of what all the world knows.
Lady Jane. And how do I make mysteries, pray?
Lady Bell. Why, you confident thing, I’ll prove it against you.
Lady lane. But what? What? What will you prove?
Lady Bell. That you are ready to jump out of your little wits for a husband, my demure, sober sister. Miss Neville, a poet is not more eager for the success of a new comedy, nor one of his brother poets more desirous to see it fail, than that girl is to throw herself into the arms of a man.

In a kindred manner Mrs Hannah Cowley, author of nearly a score of comedies, farces, and tragedies, strove to work in the older tradition. A Bold Stroke for a Husband (1783), The Belle’s Stratagem (1780), and A School for Greybeards (1786) are all equally vivacious, adding to cleverly constructed intrigues reminiscent [191] of the plays of Mrs Behn and Mrs Centlivre characters which take life on the stage; the Doricourt of the last-mentioned play, handsome, witty, and gallant, succeeds in recalling the vanished Dorimants and Mirabells of an elder age.

These comedies, which are merely a few selected from among many others, demonstrate that even the force of prevailing sentimentalism could not completly banish laughter from the playhouses. Nearly all are now neglected because of Goldsmith’s and Sheridan’s triumphs, but several of them gave suggestions to these two authors for their better-known works, and all deserve to be remembered for their own intrinsic merits. Oliver Goldsmith first took up the cudgels against the sentimental drama in 1759 when he published his essay on The Present State of Polite Learning, and a decade later, in 1768, his The Good-natured Man directed its barbed shafts at the style of Kelly, Cumberland, and their kin. The audience realized fully the cleverness of the work, although their tastes were too squeamish to permit them to accept without protest the “low” scenes which Goldsmith had introduced into his play. Reading this comedy now, we may perhaps fail to discern wherein exactly Goldsmith departed from the sentimental camp. The concluding lines seem cast entirely in the spirit of the Cumberland:

Honeywood. Heavens! How can I have deserved all this? How express my happiness, my gratitude! A moment like this overpays an age of apprehension.
Croaker. Well, now I see content in every face; but Heaven send we be all better this day three months.
Sir William. Henceforth, nephew, learn to respect yourself. He who seeks only for applause from without has all his happiness in another’s keeping.
Honeywood. Yes, Sir, I now too plainly perceive my errors - my vanity, in attempting to please all, by fearing to offend any; my meanness in approving folly, lest fools should disapprove. Henceforth, therefore, it shall be my study to reserve my pity for real distress, my friendship for true merit, and my love for her, who first taught me what it is to be happy.

Certainly this shows that Goldsmith had not completely thrown over the shackles of the style he condemned. and similar passages may be found scattered throughout the play. But when we come to the bailiff scenes in the third act Goldsmith’s sly satire becomes dearly apparent. Says the minion of the law:

Looky, Sir, I have arrested as good men as you in my time-no disparagement of you neither-men that would go forty guineas on a game of cribbage. I challenge the town to show a man in more genteeler practice than myself. ... I love to see a gentleman with a tender heart. I don’t know, but I think I have a tender heart myself. If all that I have lost by my heart was put together, it would make a-but no matter for that. ... Humanity, Sir, is a jewel. It’s better than gold. I love humanity. People may say, that we, in our way, have no humanity; but I’ll shew you my humanity this moment. There’s my follower here, little Flanigan, with a wife and four children; a guinea or two would be more to him, than twice as much to another. Now, as I can’t shew him any humanity myself, I must beg leave you’ll do it for me.... Sir, you’re a gentleman. I see you know what to do with your money.

The Good-natured Man cannot be regarded as a truly successful play; the plot moves creakingly, much of the dialogue is stilted, and there are scenes which show that the author has not grasped fully the requirements of the stage. All these defects, however, are remedied in She Stoops to Conquer; or, The Mistakes of a Night (1773). This comedy, of richly deserved fame, presents a peculiar and interesting fusion of different forces. Clearly it owes part of its inspiration to the school of which Farquhar was the last true representative, but in essence it approaches more nearly to the spirit of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, which, it may be noted, were at that time winning an esteem they had not enjoyed since the early seventeenth century. In effect, the conception of Hardcastle, Tony Lumpkin, Diggory, and the lovers exhibits, not a witty intellectual approach, but the exercise of humour. Here are the sly smiles. the subtle sallies, the humane sensitiveness characteristic of that mood. Basically, Tony Lumpkin is born of Falstaff’s company: he is a fool and yet a wit; for his follies we laugh at him and at the same time we recognize that often the laugh is turned back upon ourselves. Although the setting and the persons of the comedy seem far off from Shakespeare’s Rosalinds and Orlandos, Bottoms and Dogberrys, it [193] seems certain that in penning its scenes Goldsmith was looking back fondly over a period of nearly two hundred years.

Entirely distinct in character and in aim, save for a common objection to the sentimental style, Richard Brinsley Sheridan pursued Goldsmith’s endeavour to keep laughter on the stage. His contributions to the theatre, dating from the year 1775, are of a strange variety. The comic opera called The Duenna (1775) has already been noted, and almost at the same time appeared The Rivals (1775), a comedy in which diverse influences can be seen at work. There is no suggestion of Shakespearian reminiscence here, but the impress of Jonson and of Congreve is amply apparent. The names given to many of the persons, such as Sir Lucius 0’Trigger, Sir Anthony Absolute, and Lydia Languish, take us back to the comedy of “humours,” while much of their dialogue recalls the late-seventeenth-century style. A concession to sentimental tastes may be found in the Julia Faulkland scenes, even although the satire directed at Lydia indicates Sheridan’s awareness of its falsity. The author’s object patently was to keep to the level of comedy, yet farcical episodes are freely introduced. All of this suggests that as yet Sheridan had not been able to secure a determined orientation towards his work; The Rivals, despite the vigour of its writing and despite such inimitable portraits as that of Mrs Malaprop, does not present an integrated whole.

The School for Scandal (1777), on the other hand, is a completely harmonious masterpiece. Nothing disturbs the constant glitter of its wit, and the complicated plot is kept moving with consummate skill. Satire of the sentimental strain, expressed in the person of Joseph Surface, falls into its proper place. All is crystal dear, and never for a moment does the author deviate from his effort to follow Etherege and Congreve in the exploitation for comic ends of the manners of society.

Unfortunately, Sheridan never rose to such heights again. The Critic; or, A Tragedy Rehearsed (1779) is amusing and clever, but after all it is merely a burlesque; A Trip to Scarborough (1777), although it possesses an individual quality of its own, is but an adaptation of a play by Vanbrugh; and when we reach the melodramatic Pizarro of 1799 we see that the author of The School [194] for Scandal has utterly forgotten the comic stage. In many respects, the writing of these two works by the same man is symbolic. In his great comedy Sheridan said almost the last word for the kind of play which was brought to perfection in The Way of the World; in Pizarro he was saying almost the first word for nineteenth-century melodrama.

[pp.191-95; end - followed by “6: The Domestic Drama”.]


[ back ]

[ top ]