Sentimental Comedy: of 18th Century in English Drama

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      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 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.

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