Eighteenth Century : Augustan Drama

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      With the end of the Stuart rule (in 1688) there began a reaction against the licentiousness and immoral tone of the Restoration comedy of manner. The most outspoken criticism came from a priest Jeremy Collier who in 1698 voiced the middle-class reaction against the immorality of Restoration Comedy of Manners in his pamphlet - A Short view of the profaneness and Immorality of the English stage. The middle class commercial classes were gaining sufficient influence to impose their views on the themes of the plays. These factors were to a great extent responsible for the comparative barrenness of English drama in the eighteenth century.

The middle class commercial classes were gaining sufficient influence to impose their views on the themes of the plays. These factors were to a great extent responsible for the comparative barrenness of English drama in the eighteenth century.
Augustan Drama

      However Augustan drama developed, a drama of sensibility in which pathos and delicacy and refined sentiments were combined. Colley Cibber, for instance in his play The Careless Husband, while he retained much that belonged to the manners tradition Superimposed moral and didactic elements. More important than Cibber was Sir Richard Steele who wrote a number of plays of sensibility : The Funeral, The Lying Lover, The Tender Husband, The Conscious Lovers. The Funeral has a number of elements belonging to the manners tradition with moralising at the conclusion. In The Lying Lover, Steele sets out his aim: "to banish out of conversation all entertainment which does not proceed from simplicity of mind, good nature, friendship and honour. In The Tender Husband, the motive of sensibility is more completely fused into the play as a whole. There were other practitioners of sensibility in the theatre, Mrs. Centilivre gained success with a play entitled The Gamestar in which the evils of gambling are displayed and the whole action is made dependent on the moral. John Kelly wrote The Married Philosopher, This drama has the merit of being the first adaptation in English of a French sentimental work.

      Sentimentalism arose in the midst of Restoration license and flourished quite independently of continental examples. Sentimental comedy displays the ordinary licentious comic characters and themes of the day with a moral ending in which rapid conversations are attributed to those who had been in the earlier acts presented as sinners. Nothing shows better the hypocrisy of the age. The reformers were satisfied because virtue triumphed in the end; the pleasure loving spectators were willing to witness the wholly artificial conversations for the sake of careless intrigue and loose dialogue of the preceding scenes. While the age extolled the moral virtues, it lost the brilliant dramatists like Congreve and Etherege.

      More effective than the exaggerated mood of the sentimental drama was the genuine domestic tragedy which constituted the most satisfactory dramatic production of the first fifty years of the eighteenth century. One of the most successful of these writers was John Lillo whose The London Merchant gained a European reputation. It depicted the life of an apprentice with all the seriousness which in the earlier drama had been restricted to those of rank. The play with its moral emphasis and its melodramatic theme made a wide and immediate appeal.

      The depths of sentimentalism were reached by dramatists such as Hugh Kelly and Richard Cumberland. The curious reader can turn to such a play as Cumberland's The West Indian to find how every human issue can be obscured in the welter of emotions. Hugh Kelly wrote False Delicacy, The School for Wives, A Word to the Wise. The other plays belonging to Cumberland are Fashionable Lover, The Jew, The Wheel of Fortune. All these plays are characterised by sentimental qualities. They painted not the men and women they saw around them but abstractions conceived in their own mind. They were written to improve the morals and not to amuse the spectators. They did not have the brightness and lively interests which are the marks of true comedy.

      From these depths the drama was rescued by Goldsmith and Sheridan. Goldsmith's two plays The Good-Natured Man and She Stoops to Conquer succeed in bringing back a breath of genuine humour and humanity to a drama stifled with excessive emotions. The plot of She Stoops to Conquer, though recklessly improbable is adequate to maintain the humour of the situation and the clear delineation of the characters. In atmosphere, it approaches more closely to Shakespeare's romantic comedy. There breathes over the play an atmosphere of romantic sentiment not the sentimentalism of Goldsmith's contemporaries but a peculiar blend of intellect and emotion which colours the figures and words of Hardcastle and of Tony Lumpkin.

      Sheridan came forward to protest against the prevailing sentimentalism with a greater distinction. In the preface to The Rivals, he proclaimed his mission. He declared amusement as the basic purpose of comedy. He wrote mainly three comedies - The Rivals, The School for Scandal and The Critic. With Sheridan something of the brilliance of Restoration dialogue return into comedy, though without the narrow and immoral Restoration world. Instead, a more genial and romantic atmosphere is created, the atmosphere of Shakespeare's romantic comedy. The characters are firmly drawn with clarity reminiscent of Jonson, but the atmosphere of Sheridan's plays is brighter and gayer. His plays are a curious mixture of satire and romance which was the aim of Shakespeare's comedy.

      Augustan tragedy was poor in quantity and quality. Addison's Cato is a masterpiece of pseudo-classical tragedy. It was produced at Drury Lane in April 14, 1713. Nicholas Rowe produced the Fair Panitent (1703). George Lillo wrote a popular tragedy The London Merchant. It deals with a middle class family in which a merchant's clerk led astray by a bad woman embezzles money, murders his uncle and is hanged for his crime. The treatment is theatrically effective. His another domestic tragedy is Fatal Curiosity (1736).

      Opera: John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728) was the most popular ballad opera and created a theatrical sensation. In this play Gay presents a picture of the world of politics and high society of his time. The immoralities and treacheries of highwaymen, crooks and trollops are not different from those of persons holding the reins of government. It is a political satire.

      Many ballad operas were produced between 1728 and the middle of the century. In the age of Dr Johnson (1741-1798), tragedy was equally poor. The sole tragedy is Johnson's Irene (1749). A tragedy which was in great vogue was Douglas (1756) by John Home. Joanna Bailie produced historical tragedies in blank verse Count Basil and De Monfort (1798).

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