18th century Drama: Goldsmith and Sheridan

Also Read

      Sentimental comedy arose in the eighteenth century as a reaction to the Restoration comedy of manners which was a cynical and witty portraiture of the aristocratic society of the Restoration age. The gay and immoral life of the court encouraged the composition of the Restoration comedy of manners. These dramas of Etherege, Wycherley, Farquhar and Ongreve degntea in the witty pictures of intrigues and rivalries in love-making. But soon there was a reaction against the immorality of the Restoration drama. This change gradually manifested itself in the advent of sensibility to replace wit and immorality in the comedy.


Eighteenth century Drama
18th century Drama

      In this sentimental comedy of Colley Cibber and Steele there was conventional morality and sentimentality in place of grossness of the restoration comedy. These dramatists dealt with the problems of conduct, family and marriage in a tone that will no longer shock decorum and by virtue of tears they cause to flow, they contributed to the edification of souls.These dramatists aimed at preaching some moral lessons by restoring suffering innocent virtue to happiness and converting rogues into good characters. Thus these comedies lost the true spirit of comedy. There are no gaiety and innocent mirth created by wit and fun. Instead, these plays served the false morality of the middle class.


      Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) in his The Good Natured Man and She Stoops to Conquer and Sheridan in his The Rivals and The School for Scandal tried to revive the true spirit of comedy by replacing sentimentality and false morality by wit and fun. Goldsmith in an essay A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy questions "whether the exhibition of human distress is likely to afford the mind more entertainment than that of human absurdity?" He was of the opinion that the success of the sentimental comedies was due to novelty or to "their flattering every man in his favourite foible". He, however, thought that such plays were deficient in Vis Comica. In his Good Natured Man (1768), he however combined in his hero sentiment and criticism of sentiment. Young Honeywood's "good nature arises rather from his fears of offending the importunate than his desire of making the deserving happy" Honeywood like Fielding's good men is unsuspicious and easily deceived: the play is the history of his education, and in the process Miss Richland helps more activity than most eighteenth century heroines could have done. The subplot resembles that of Bevil Junior and Indiana in The Conscious Lovers. Croaker - an obviously 'humorous' character of the late Elizabethan type is used to subvert sentimentality. There are many weaknesses in the plot. The dialogue is stilted. So it was not successful on the stage.


      She Stoops to Conquer (1773) was a greater success. The plot of the play is full of improbabilities but the characters are drawn in the 'humorous' Johnsonian fashion. It centres round the tricks of Miss Hardcastle to play the barmaid to win her lover. The house of the Hardcastles is mistaken as an inn. All the tricks are contrived by Tony Lumpkin. Hardcastle, Young Marlowe and Tony Lumpkin are all individuals new to the drama of their day. The play derived from Farquhar's Benux Stratagem in subject and good humour. But Goldsmith lent it some of his natural charm and the play is morally innocent. There are certain hilarious scenes with Tony Lumpkin as the central figure which provide comic mirth.


      Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) was endowed with more sparkling win than Goldsmith and had a striking success with his Rivals (1774), The School for Scandal (1777) and The Critic. He revived the comedy of Vanbrugh and Congreve without their coarseness and cynicism. The Rivals depicts the gay, carefree, frivolous life of the eighteenth century Bath. He presents characters in their respective eccentricities and dramas from their interaction materials for fun and mirth. Lydia Languish, the heroine is a satirical portraiture of sentimental heroine. Sheridan creates out of this character much fun and mirth. The situations through the characters are manipulated provide pure fun. The intrigue of The Rivals is not too original, but the humours of Mrs. Malaprop, Sir Anthony and bob Acres are triumphs of theatrical genius. The novel reading girl, the coward forced into a duel, the rebellious son bent on marrying to please himself and not his father and yet making love unwittingly to the very girl his father wants him to marry - all these are treated so vividly that Sheridan makes them easily his own. He created the funny characters. Mrs. Malaprop whose "nice derangement of epitaphs" and projected schooling for girls make for uproarious fun in the theatre. Sheridan, however, introduced Faulkland-Julia episode which satisfied the appetite of the audience in the sentimentality and at the same time for satirising the sentimental comedy.


      Sheridan's The School for Scandal has a dazzling glitter of wit. Much in the play is familiar; but here it strikes us always with the pleasure of novelty: the quarrelsome couple, here the old husband and the young wife from the country; the two brothers, one impulsive and feckless like Tom Jones, the other mouthing fine sentiments like Blifil, and plotting mischief; the 'scandal-club' of Lady Sneerwell - and more besides are all familiar; yet they are endowed with new life. Apart from the dialogue, the pride of the play is doubtless the perfect manipulation of the intrigue leading inevitably to the thrilling resolution in the famous screen scene. Sheridan presents Charles Surface, the true man of feeling who gaily gives up fine sentiments, and Joseph, the hypocritical man of feeling, who conceals malice under falsely moral or noble sentiments. Sentimentalism is only an ingredient in the rich sauce of his satire. He gives us a true picture of a scandal-loving society. He can be serious but is not too serious; he keeps to the comic aspects of the foibles of the day, and enlivens the whole with incessant sparkling wit. His last play is The Critic or a Tragedy Rehearsed (1779). It is a telling attack on the popular sentimental drama and has been called the best burlesque of its age.

Previous Post Next Post