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   The License of the Age. Dryden. Wycherley. Congreve. Vanbrugh. 
   Farquhar. Etherege. Tragedy. Otway. Rowe. Lee. Southern.


There is no portion of the literature of this period which so fully represents and explains the social history of the age as the drama. With the restoration of Charles it returned to England, after a time in which the chief faults had been too great rigor in morals. The theatres had been closed, all amusements checked, and even poetry and the fine arts placed under a ban. In the reign of Charles I., Prynne had written hisHistrio Mastix, or Scourge of the Stage, in which he not only denounced all stage plays, but music and dancing; and also declaimed against hunting, festival days, the celebration of Christmas, and Maypoles. For this he was indicted in the Star Chamber for libel, and was sentenced to stand in the pillory, to lose his ears, to pay the king a fine of L5000, and to be imprisoned for life. For his attack there was much excuse in the license of the former period; but when puritanism, in its turn, was brought under the three spears, the drama was to come back tenfold more injurious and more immoral than before.

From the stern and gloomy morals of the Commonwealth we now turn to the debaucheries of the court,—from cropped heads and dark cloaks to plumes and velvet, gold lace and embroidery,—to the varied fashions of every kind for which Paris has always been renowned, and which Charles brought back with him from his exile;—from prudish morals to indiscriminate debauchery; from the exercisings of brewers' clerks, the expounding of tailors, the catechizing of watermen, to the stage, which was now loudly petitioned to supply amusement and novelty. Macaulay justly says: “The restraints of that gloomy time were such as would have been impatiently borne, if imposed by men who were universally believed to be saints; these restraints became altogether insupportable when they were known to be kept up for the profit of hypocrites! It is quite certain that if the royal family had never returned, there would have been a great relaxation of manners.” It is equally certain, let us add, that morals would not have been correspondingly relaxed. The revulsion was terrible. In no period of English history was society ever so grossly immoral; and the drama, which we now come to consider, displays this immorality and license with a perfect delineation.

The English people had always been fond of the drama in all its forms, and were ready to receive it even contaminated as it was by the licentious spirit of the time. An illiterate and ignorant people cannot think for themselves; they act upon the precepts and example of those above them in knowledge and social station: thus it is that a dissolute monarch and a subservient aristocracy corrupt the masses.

DRYDEN'S PLAYS.—Although Dryden's reputation is based on his other poems, and although his dramas have conduced scarcely at all to his fame, he did play a principal part in this department of literary work. Dryden made haste to answer the call, and his venal muse wrote to please the town. The names of many of his plays and personages are foreign; but their vitality is purely English. Of his first play, The Duke of Guise, which was unsuccessful, he tells us: “I undertook this as the fairest way which the Act of Indemnity had left us, as setting forth the rise of the great rebellion, and of exposing the villanies of it upon the stage, to precaution posterity against the like errors;”—a rebellion the master-spirit of which he had eulogized upon his bier!

His second play, The Wild Gallant, may be judged by the fact that it won for him the favor of Charles II. and of his mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland. Pepys saw it “well acted;” but says, “It hath little good in it.” It is not our purpose to give a list of Dryden's plays; besides their occasional lewdness, they are very far inferior to his poems, and are now rarely read except by the historical student. They paid him in ready money, and he cannot ask payment from posterity in fame.

On the 13th of January, 1667-8, (we are told by Pepys,) the ladies and the Duke of Monmouth acted The Indian Emperour at court.

The same chronicler says: The Maiden Queene was “mightily commended for the regularity of it, and the strain and wit;” but of the Ladys a la Mode he says it was “so mean a thing” that, when it was announced for the next night, the pit “fell a laughing, because the house was not a quarter full.”

But Dryden, as a playwright, does not enjoy the infamous honor of a high rank among his fellow-dramatists. The proper representations of the drama in that age were, in Comedy, Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar; and, in Tragedy, Otway, Rowe, and Lee.

WYCHERLEY.—Of the comedists of this period, where all were evil, William Wycherley was the worst. In his four plays, Love in a Wood, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, The Country Wife, and The Plain Dealer, he outrages all decency, ridicules honesty and virtue, and makes vice always triumphant. As a young man, profligate with pen and in his life, he was a wicked old man; for, when sixty-four years of age, he published a miscellany of verses of which Macaulay says: “The style and versification are beneath criticism: the morals are those of Rochester.” And yet it is sad to be obliged to say that his characters pleased the age, because such men and women really lived then, and acted just as he describes them. He depicted vice to applaud and not to punish it. Wycherley was born in 1640, and died in 1715.

CONGREVE.—William Congreve, who is of the same school of morals, is far superior as a writer; indeed, were one name to be selected in illustration of our subject, it would be his. He was born in 1666, and, after being educated at Trinity College, Dublin, was a student at the Middle Temple. His first play, The Old Bachelor, produced in his twenty-first year, was a great success, and won for him the patronage of Lord Halifax. His next, The Double Dealer, caused Dryden to proclaim him the equal of Shakspeare! Perhaps his most famous comedy is Love for Love, which is besides an excellent index to the morality of the age. The author was quoted and caressed; Pope dedicated to him his Translation of the Iliad; and Voltaire considered him the most successful English writer of comedy. His merit consists in some degree of originality, and in the liveliness of his colloquies. His wit is brilliant and flashing, but, in the words of Thackeray, the world to him “seems to have had no moral at all.”

How much he owed to the French school, and especially to Moliere, may be judged from the fact that a whole scene in Love for Love is borrowed from the Don Juan of Moliere. It is that in which Trapland comes to collect his debt from Valentine Legend. Readers of Moliere will recall the scene between Don Juan, Sganarelle and M. Dimanche, which is here, with change of names, taken almost word for word. His men are gallants neither from love or passion, but from the custom of the age, of which it is said, “it would break Mr. Tattle's heart to think anybody else should be beforehand with him;” and Mr. Tattle was the type of a thousand fine gentlemen in the best English society of that day.

His only tragedy, The Mourning Bride, although far below those of Shakspeare, is the best of that age; and Dr. Johnson says he would go to it to find the most poetical paragraph in the range of English poetry. Congreve died in 1729, leaving his gains to the Duchess of Marlborough, who cherished his memory in a very original fashion. She had a statue of him in ivory, which went by clockwork, and was daily seated at her table; and another wax-doll imitation, whose feet she caused to be blistered and anointed by physicians, as the poet's gouty extremities had been.

Congreve was not ashamed to vindicate the drama, licentious as it was. In the year 1698, Jeremy Collier, a distinguished nonjuring clergyman, published A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage; a very vigorous and severe criticism, containing a great deal of wholesome but bitter truth. Congreve came to the defence of the stage, and his example was followed by his brother dramatists. But Collier was too strong for his enemies, and the defences were very weak. There yet existed in England that leaven of purity which has steadily since been making its influence felt.

VANBRUGH.—Sir John Vanbrugh (born in 1666, died in 1726) was an architect as well as a dramatist, but not great in either role. His principal dramas are The Provoked Wife, The City Wives' Confederacy, and The Journey to London (finished by Colley Cibber). His personages are vicious and lewd, but quite real; and his wit is constant and flowing. The Provoked Wife is so licentious a play that it is supposed Vanbrugh afterwards conceived and began his Provoked Husband to make some amends for it. This latter play, however, he did not complete: it was finished after his death by Cibber, who says in the Prologue:

    This play took birth from principles of truth, 
    To make amends for errors past of youth.

          * * * * *

    Though vice is natural, 't was never meant 
    The stage should show it but for punishment. 
    Warm with such thoughts, his muse once more took flame, 
    Resolved to bring licentious life to shame.

If Vanbrugh was not born in France, it is certain that he spent many years there, and there acquired the taste and handling of the comic drama, which then had its halcyon days under Moliere. His dialogue is very spirited, and his humor is greater than that of Congreve, who, however, excelled him in wit.

The principal architectural efforts of Vanbrugh were the design for Castle Howard, and the palace of Blenheim, built for Marlborough by the English nation, both of which are greater titles to enduring reputation than any of his plays.

FARQUHAR.—George Farquhar was born in Londonderry, in 1678, and began his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, but was soon stage-struck, and became an actor. Not long after, he was commissioned in the army, and began to write plays in the style and moral tone of the age. Among his nine comedies, those which present that tone best are his Love in a Bottle, The Constant Couple, The Recruiting Officer, and The Beaux' Stratagem. All his productions were hastily written, but met with great success from their gayety and clever plots, especially the last two mentioned, which are not, besides, so immoral as the others, and which are yet acted upon the British stage.

ETHEREGE.—Sir George Etherege, a coxcomb and a diplomatist, was born in 1636, and died in 1694. His plays are, equally with the others mentioned, marked by the licentiousness of the age, which is rendered more insidious by their elegance. Among them are The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub, and The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter.


The domain of tragedy, although perhaps not so attractive to the English people as comedy, was still sufficiently so to invite the attention of the literati. The excitement which is produced by exaggerated scenes of distress and death has always had a charm for the multitude; and although the principal tragedies of this period are based upon heroic stories, many of them of classic origin, the genius of the writer displayed itself in applying these to his own times, and in introducing that “touch of nature” which “makes the whole world kin.” Human sympathy is based upon a community of suffering, and the sorrows of one age are similar to those of another. Besides, tragedy served, in the period of which we are speaking, to give variety and contrast to what would otherwise have been the gay monotony of the comic muse.

OTWAY.—The first writer to be mentioned in this field, is Thomas Otway (born in 1651, died in 1685). He led an irregular and wretched life, and died, it is said, from being choked by a roll of bread which, after great want, he was eating too ravenously.

His style is extravagant, his pathos too exacting, and his delineation of the passions sensational and overwrought. He produced in his earlier career Alcibiades and Don Carlos, and, later, The Orphan, andThe Soldier's Fortune. But the piece by which his fame was secured is Venice Preserved, which, based upon history, is fictional in its details. The original story is found in the Abbe de St. Real's Histoire de la Conjuration du Marquis de Bedamar, or the account of a Spanish conspiracy in which the marquis, who was ambassador, took part. It is still put upon the stage, with the omission, however, of the licentious comic portions found in the original play.

NICHOLAS ROWE, who was born in 1673, a man of fortune and a government official, produced seven tragedies, of which The Fair Penitent, Lady Jane Grey, and Jane Shore are the best. His description of the lover, in the first, has become a current phrase: “That haughty, gallant, gay Lothario,”—the prototype of false lovers since. The plots are too broad, but the moral of these tragedies is in most cases good.

In Jane Shore, he has followed the history of the royal mistress, and has given a moral lesson of great efficacy.

NATHANIEL LEE, 1657-1692: was a man of dissolute life, for some time insane, and met his death in a drunken brawl. Of his ten tragedies, the best are The Rival Queens, and Theodosius, or The Force of Love. The rival queens of Alexander the Great—Roxana and Statira—figure in the first, which is still presented upon the stage. It has been called, with just critical point, “A great and glorious flight of a bold but frenzied imagination, having as much absurdity as sublimity, and as much extravagance as passion; the poet, the genius, the scholar are everywhere visible.”

THOMAS SOUTHERN, 1659-1746: wrote Isabella, or The Fatal Marriage, and Oronooko. In the latter, although yielding to the corrupt taste of the time in his comic parts, he causes his captive Indian prince to teach that period a lesson by his pure and noble love for Imoinda. Oronooko is a prince taken by the English at Surinam and carried captive to England.

These writers are the best representatives of those who in tragedy and comedy form the staple of that age. Their models were copied in succeeding years; but, with the expulsion of the Stuarts, morals were somewhat mended; and while light, gay, and witty productions for the stage were still in demand, the extreme licentiousness was repudiated by the public; and the plays of Cibber, Cumberland, Colman, and Sheridan, reflecting these better tastes, are free from much of the pollution to which we have referred.