Sentimental Comedy: of 18th Century in English Drama

Also Read

      Literary movements rise and fall as the wave of the sea. The Restoration drama is full of vitality and moves with great pace. The exuberance of the Elizabethan poetic romances is supplanted by a polish and intellectual control. This intellectual control replaces emotion by wit and poetry by a clear and concise prose which gives a fine precision to the dialogue. Congreve wrote in this new style. The prevailing tone is cynicism and the plays show observation of life and manners which recalls the works of Jonson. Plots and subplots are intricate and numerous. They centre mainly upon amorous intrigue. It reflects an open contempt for the ordinary standards of morality. In Wycherley and others it often takes the form of gross sensuality. In the hands of great dramatists, Etherege and Congreve, the morality still remains. The lack of emotion and passion in these plays gives them polished, crystal hardness which saves them from licentiousness.

Sentimental comedies are interested primarily in the ultimate reformation of rakes and rogues.
Sentimental Comedy

      The immorality of the Restoration drama was the object of fierce Puritanical attacks. Jeremy Collier published an indictment on the 'profaneness' and immorality of the stage. His book A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) attacked the vices of the stage with great vigour and this gave rise to a new form of comedy. Under its silent influence sentimental comedy comes into existence before the end of the seventeenth century.

      Sentimental comedy as also known as ‘drama of sensibility’ is the dominant comic genre after Restoration comedy. Sentimental drama contains both comedy and sentimental tragedy. It appears in literary circle due to reaction of middle class against obscenity and indecency of Restoration Comedy of Manners. This form gained popularity among the middle class audiences in 18th century. This drama incorporates scenes with extreme emotions evoking excessive pity. It appeared as a reaction against the immoral and licentious comedy of manners, which emphasized vices and faults of people; sentimental comedy focused on the virtues of private life, with simple and honorable characters.

      According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Sentimental Comedy is an 18th century dramatic genre which sprang up as a reaction to the immoral tone of English Restoration plays. In Sentimental comedies middle-class protagonists triumphantly overcome a series of moral trials. These plays aimed to produce tears rather than laughter and reflected contemporary philosophical conceptions of humans as inherently good but capable of being led astray by bad example. By appealing to his noble sentiments, a man could be reformed and set back on the path of virtue. While the plays contained characters whose natures seemed overly virtuous and whose problems were too easily resolved, they were accepted by audiences as truthful representations of the human predicament.

      The characters in Sentimental Comedy are either strictly good or had. Heroes have no faults or had habits; villains are thoroughly evil or morally degraded. The authors purpose was to show the audience the innate goodness of people and that through morality people who have been led astray can find the path of righteousness. The plot usually centered on the domestic trials of middle-class couples and included romantic love scenes. Their private woes are exhibited with much emotional stress intended to arouse the spectator’s pity and suspense in advance of the approaching happy ending. Lovers are often shown separated from each other by socio-economic factors at the beginning, but brought together in the end by a discovery about the identity of the lower class lover. Plots also contained an element of mystery to be solved. Verse was not used in order to create a closer illusion of reality. It was thought that rhyme would obscure the true meaning of the words and make the truth disappear.

      The playwrights of this genre aimed to bring the audience to tears not laughter as the name Sentimental Comedy might suggest. They believed that noisy laughter inhibited the silent sympathy and thought of the audience. Playwrights strove to touch the feelings of the spectators so that they could learn from the play and relate the events they witnessed on stage to their own lives, causing them to live more virtuously. In France Comedie Larmoyante, similar to sentimental comedy, was written principally by Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussee, whose Le Prejuge a la mode (1735; “Fashionable Prejudice”) is a good example of the genre. The best known work of this genre in English is Sir Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers (1722), in which the penniless heroine Indiana faces various tests until the discovery that she is an heiress leads to the necessary happy ending. Steele wished his plays to bring the audience, “a pleasure too exquisite for laughter”. Steele was an Irish writer and politician, remembered mainly for co-founding the magazine The Spectator. While he wrote a few notable sentimental comedies, he was criticized for being a hypocrite as he wrote moral plays, booklets, and articles but enjoyed drinking, occasional dueling, and debauchery around town.

      Another important writer of the genre was Colley Cibber, an actor-manager, writer, and poet laureate who wrote the first sentimental comedy, Loves Last Shift in order to give himself a role. The play did establish him as both an actor and a playwright. Although he has composed 25 successful plays, his much political adaptations make him face much criticism at the last. Neither Steele nor Colley, or any other writer, made a career of writing sentimental comedies as the genre was popular for only a short time. In fact, all of the authors of sentimental comedy at this time wrote other forms including Restoration comedy and tragedy. Sentimental comedies continued to coexist with more conventional laughing comedies such as Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) until the sentimental genre waned in the early 19th century.

      Sentimental comedy springs from a mistaken view of drama. It represents the virtues of private life rather than its vices. Here most of the characters are good and generous. So they have scarcely any foibles and absurdities left to be explored and ridiculed. Sentimental comedies are interested primarily in the ultimate reformation of rakes and rogues. It announces the beginning of middle class drama. It was the avowed intention of sentimental dramatists to turn the stage into a delightful school of morality, Cibber, Steele and Kelly - their major comedies suffer much in this respect, i.e., excess of morality. There is no variety of plot; there are stock situations and characters in a sentimental comedy. But these characters are mostly lifeless puppets. There is no logical development in them. They are at the end what they are at the beginning. Satire is the salt of all true comedies. But we rarely find any element of satire in a sentimental comedy. Wit and humour which give liveliness to a comedy absent in a sentimental comedy. As a result it becomes dull and monotonous. It aims simply to show certain fictitious things of life.

      Colly Cibber had a great influence in shaping the drama of the eighteenth century. In his play, The Careless Husband, he retained much that belonged to the manner tradition, but superimposed on it moral and didactic elements. More important than Cibber was Sir Richard Steele who endows sentimental comedy with greater fineness and charm. Moreover, he has a gift for comedy, and inventiveness, a liveliness in dialogue. He wrote a number of plays of sensibility-The Funeral (1701), The Lyig Lover (1703), The Tender Husband (1705), The Couscious Lovers (1722). Of them, The Conscious Lovers had a great appeal to sensibility. They 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. The depths of Sentimentalism were reached by such dramatists as Hugh Kelly and Richard Cumberland. The curious reader can turn to such a play as Cumberland's The West Indian (1771) 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. These plays painted not the men and women they saw around them but abstractions conceived in their own mind. They are written to improve the morals and not to amuse the spectators. They did not have the brightness and liveliness which are the marks of true comedy. Thus sentimental comedy departed from the nature and purpose of comic art. These comedies showed the reward of the virtuous and the punishment of the wicked. They were didactic and maudlin. Against these comedies Goldsmith and Sheridan reacted.

Previous Post Next Post