CHAPTER XXXIII. THE LATER DRAMA.
The Progress of the Drama. Garrick. Foote. Cumberland. Sheridan. George
Colman. George Colman, the Younger. Other Dramatists and Humorists.
Other Writers on Various Subjects.
THE PROGRESS OF THE DRAMA.
The latter half of the eighteenth century, so marked, as we have seen, for manifold literary activity, is, in one phase of its history, distinctly represented by the drama. It was a very peculiar epoch in English annals. The accession of George III., in 1760, gave promise, from the character of the king and of his consort, of an exemplary reign. George III. was the first monarch of the house of Hanover who may be justly called an English king in interest and taste. He and his queen were virtuous and honest; and their influence was at once felt by a people in whom virtue and honesty are inherent, and whose consciences and tastes had been violated by the evil examples of the former reigns.
In 1762 George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, was born; and as soon as he approached manhood, he displayed the worst features of his ancestral house: he was extravagant and debauched; he threw himself into a violent opposition to his father: with this view he was at first a Whig, but afterwards became a Tory. He had also peculiar opportunities for exerting authority during the temporary fits of insanity which attacked the king in 1764, in 1788, and in 1804. At last, in 1810, the king was so disabled from attending to his duties that the prince became regent, and assumed the reins of government, not to resign them again during his life.
In speaking of the drama of this period, we should hardly, therefore, be wrong in calling it the Drama of the Regency. It held, however, by historic links, following the order of historic events, to the earlier drama. Shakspeare and his contemporaries had established the dramatic art on a firm basis. The frown of puritanism, in the polemic period, had checked its progress: with the restoration of Charles II, it had returned to rival the French stage in wicked plots and prurient scenes. With the better morals of the Revolution, and the popular progress which was made at the accession of the house of Hanover, the drama was modified: the older plays were revived in their original freshness; a new and better taste was to be catered to; and what of immorality remained was chiefly due to the influence of the Prince of Wales. Actors, so long despised, rose to importance as great artists. Garrick and Foote, and, later, Kemble, Kean, and Mrs. Siddons, were social personages in England. Peers married actresses, and enduring reputation was won by those who could display the passions and the affections to the life, giving flesh and blood and mind and heart to the inimitable creations of Shakspeare.
It must be allowed that this power of presentment marks the age more powerfully than any claims of dramatic authorship. The new play-writers did not approach Shakspeare; but they represented their age, and repudiated the vices, in part at least, of their immediate predecessors. In them, too, is to be observed the change from the artificial to the romantic and natural, The scenes and persons in their plays are taken from the life around them, and appealed to the very models from which they were drawn.
DAVID GARRICK.—First among these purifiers of the drama is David Garrick, who was born in Lichfield, in 1716. He was a pupil of Dr. Johnson, and came up with that distinguished man to London, in 1735. The son of a captain in the Royal army, but thrown upon his own exertions, he first tried to gain a livelihood as a wine merchant; but his fondness for the stage led him to become an actor, and in taking this step he found his true position. A man of respectable parts and scholarship, he wrote many agreeable pieces for the stage; which, however, owed their success more to his accurate knowledge of the mise en scene, and to his own representation of the principal characters, than to their intrinsic merits. His mimetic powers were great: he acted splendidly in all casts, excelling, perhaps, in tragedy; and he, more than any actor before or since, has made the world thoroughly acquainted with Shakspeare. Dramatic authors courted him; for his appearance in any new piece was almost an assurance of its success.
Besides many graceful prologues, epigrams, and songs, he wrote, or altered, forty plays. Among these the following have the greatest merit: The Lying Valet, a farce founded on an old English comedy; The Clandestine Marriage, in which he was aided by the elder Colman; (the character of Lord Ogleby he wrote for himself to personate;) Miss in her Teens, a very clever and amusing farce. He was charmingly natural in his acting; but he was accused of being theatrical when off the stage. In the words of Goldsmith:
On the stage he was natural, simple, affecting;
'Twas only that when he was off, he was acting.
Garrick married a dancer, who made him an excellent wife. By his own exertions he won a highly respectable social position, and an easy fortune of L140,000, upon which he retired from the stage. He died in London in 1779.
In 1831-2 his Private Correspondence with the Most Celebrated Persons of his Time was published, and opened a rich field to the social historian. Among his correspondents were Dr. Johnson, Boswell, Goldsmith, Gibber, Sheridan, Burke, Wilkes, Junius, and Dr. Franklin. Thus Garrick catered largely to the history of his period, as an actor and dramatic author, illustrating the stage; as a reviver of Shakspeare, and as a correspondent of history.
SAMUEL FOOTE.—Among the many English actors who have been distinguished for great powers of versatility in voice, feature, and manner, there is none superior to Foote. Bold and self-reliant, he was a comedian in every-day life; and his ready wit and humor subdued Dr. Johnson, who had determined to dislike him. He was born in 1722, at Truro, and educated at Oxford: he studied law, but his peculiar aptitudes soon led him to the stage, where he became famous as a comic actor. Among his original pieces are The Patron, The Devil on Two Stilts, The Diversions of the Morning, Lindamira, and The Slanderer. But his best play, which is a popular burlesque on parliamentary elections, is The Mayor of Garrat. He died in 1777, at Dover, while on his way to France for the benefit of his health. His plays present the comic phase of English history in his day.
RICHARD CUMBERLAND.—This accomplished man, who, in the words of Walter Scott, has given us “many powerful sketches of the age which has passed away,” was born in 1732, and lived to the ripe age of seventy-nine, dying in 1811. After receiving his education at Cambridge, he became secretary to Lord Halifax. His versatile pen produced, besides dramatic pieces, novels and theological treatises, illustrating the principal topics of the time. In his plays there is less of immorality than in those of his contemporaries. The West Indian, which was first put upon the stage in 1771, and which is still occasionally presented, is chiefly noticeable in that an Irishman and a West Indian are the principal characters, and that he has not brought them into ridicule, as was common at the time, but has exalted them by their merits. The best of his other plays are The Jew, The Wheel of Fortune, and The Fashionable Lover. Goldsmith, in his poem Retaliation, says of Cumberland, referring to his greater morality and his human sympathy,
Here Cumberland lies, having acted his parts,
The Terence of England, the mender of hearts;
A flattering painter, who made it his care
To draw men as they ought to be, not as they are.
RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN.—No man represents the Regency so completely as Sheridan. He was a statesman, a legislator, an orator, and a dramatist; and in social life a wit, a gamester, a spendthrift, and a debauchee. His manifold nature seemed to be always in violent ebullition. He was born in September, 1751, and was the son of Thomas Sheridan, the actor and lexicographer, His mother, Frances Sheridan, was also a writer of plays and novels. Educated at Harrow, he was there considered a dunce; and when he grew to manhood, he plunged into dissipation, and soon made a stir in the London world by making a runaway match with Miss Linley, a singer, who was noted as one of the handsomest women of the day. A duel with one of her former admirers was the result.
As a dramatist, he began by presenting A Trip to Scarborough, which was altered from Vanbrugh's Relapse; but his fame was at once assured by his production, in 1775, of The Duenna and The Rivals. The former is called an opera, but is really a comedy containing many songs: the plot is varied and entertaining; but it is far inferior to The Rivals, which is based upon his own adventures, and is brimming with wit and humor. Mrs. Malaprop, Bob Acres, Sir Lucius O'Trigger, and the Absolutes, father and son, have been prime favorites upon the stage ever since.
In 1777 he produced The School for Scandal, a caustic satire on London society, which has no superior in genteel comedy. It has been said that the characters of Charles and Joseph Surface were suggested by the Tom Jones and Blifil of Fielding; but, if this be true, the handling is so original and natural, that they are in no sense a plagiarism. Without the rippling brilliancy of The Rivals, The School for Scandal is better sustained in scene and colloquy; and in spite of some indelicacy, which is due to the age, the moral lesson is far more valuable. The satire is strong and instructive, and marks the great advance in social decorum over the former age.
In 1779 appeared The Critic, a literary satire, in which the chief character is that of Sir Fretful Plagiary.
Sheridan sat in parliament as member for Stafford. His first effort in oratory was a failure; but by study he became one of the most effective popular orators of his day. His speeches lose by reading: he abounded in gaudy figures, and is not without bombast; but his wonderful flow of words and his impassioned action dazzled his audience and kept it spellbound. His oratory, whatever its faults, gained also the unstinted praise of his colleagues and rivals in the art. Of his great speech in the trial of Warren Hastings, in 1788, Fox declared that “all he had ever heard, all he had ever read, when compared with it, dwindled into nothing, and vanished like vapor before the sun.” Burke called it “the most astonishing effort of eloquence, argument, and wit united, of which there was any record or tradition;” and Pitt said “that it surpassed all the eloquence of ancient or modern times.”
Sheridan was for some time the friend and comrade of the Prince Regent, in wild courses which were to the taste of both; but this friendship was dissolved, and the famous dramatist and orator sank gradually in the social scale, until he had sounded the depths of human misery. He was deeply in debt; he obtained money under mean and false pretences; he was drunken and debauched; and even death did not bring rest. He died in July, 1816. His corpse was arrested for debt, and could not be buried until the debt was paid. In his varied brilliancy and in his fatal debauchery, his character stands forth as the completest type of the period of the Regency. Many memoirs have been written, among which those of his friend Moore, and his granddaughter the Hon. Mrs. Norton, although they unduly palliate his faults, are the best.
GEORGE COLMAN.—Among the respectable dramatists of this period who exerted an influence in leading the public taste away from the witty and artificial schools of the Restoration, the two Colmans deserve mention. George Colman, the elder, was born in Florence in 1733, but began his education at Westminster School, from which he was removed to Oxford. After receiving his degree he studied law; but soon abandoned graver study to court the comic muse. His first piece, Polly Honeycomb, was produced in 1760; but his reputation was established by The Jealous Wife, suggested by a scene in Fielding's Tom Jones. Besides many humorous miscellanies, most of which appeared in The St. James' Chronicle,—a magazine of which he was the proprietor,—he translated Terence, and produced more than thirty dramatic pieces, some of which are still presented upon the stage. The best of these is The Clandestine Marriage, which was the joint production of Garrick and himself. Of this play, Davies says “that no dramatic piece, since the days of Beaumont and Fletcher, had been written by two authors, in which wit, fancy, and humor were so happily blended.” In 1768 he became one of the proprietors of the Covent Garden Theatre: in 1789 his mind became affected, and he remained a mental invalid until his death in 1794.
GEORGE COLMAN. THE YOUNGER.—This writer was the son of George Colman, and was born in 1762. Like his father, he was educated at Westminster and Oxford; but he was removed from the university before receiving his degree, and was graduated at King's College, Aberdeen. He inherited an enthusiasm for the drama and considerable skill as a dramatic author. In 1787 he produced Inkle and Yarico, founded upon the pathetic story of Addison, in The Spectator. In 1796 appeared The Iron Chest; this was followed, in 1797,. by The Heir at Law and John Bull. To him the world is indebted for a large number of stock pieces which still appear at our theatres. In 1802 he published a volume entitled Broad Grins, which was an expansion of a previous volume of comic scraps. This is full of frolic and humor: among the verses in the style of Peter Pindar are the well-known sketches The Newcastle Apothecary, (who gave the direction with his medicine, “When taken, to be well shaken,”) and Lodgings for Single Gentlemen.
The author's fault is his tendency to farce, which robs his comedies of dignity. He assumed the cognomen the younger because, he said, he did not wish his father's memory to suffer for his faults. He died in 1836.
OTHER HUMORISTS AND DRAMATISTS OF THE PERIOD.
John Wolcot, 1738-1819: his pseudonym was Peter Pindar. He was a satirist as well as a humorist, and was bold in lampooning the prominent men of his time, not even sparing the king. The world of literature knows him best by his humorous poetical sketches, The Apple-Dumplings and the King, The Razor-Seller, The Pilgrims and the Peas, and many others.
Hannah More, 1745-1833: this lady had a flowing, agreeable style, but produced no great work. She wrote for her age and pleased it; but posterity disregards what she has written. Her principal plays are:Percy, presented in 1777, and a tragedy entitled The Fatal Falsehood. She was a poet and a novelist also; but in neither part did she rise above mediocrity. In 1782 appeared her volume of Sacred Dramas. Her best novel is entitled Caelebs in Search of a Wife, comprehending Observations on Domestic Habits and Manners, Religion and Morals. Her greatest merit is that she always inculcated pure morals and religion, and thus aided in improving the society of her age. Something of her fame is also due to the rare appearance, up to this time, of women in the fields of literature; so that her merits are indulgently exaggerated.
Joanna Baillie, 1762-1851: this lady, the daughter of a Presbyterian divine, wrote graceful verses, but is principally known by her numerous plays. Among these, which include thirteen Plays on the Passions, and thirteen Miscellaneous Plays, those best known are De Montfort and Basil—both tragedies, which have received high praise from Sir Walter Scott. Her Ballads and Metrical Legends are all spirited and excellent; and her Hymns breathe the very spirit of devotion. Very popular during her life, and still highly estimated by literary critics, her works have given place to newer and more favorite authors, and have already lost interest with the great world of readers.
OTHER WRITERS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS.
Thomas Warton, 1728-1790: he was Professor of Poetry and of Ancient History at Oxford, and, for the last five years of his life, poet-laureate. The student of English Literature is greatly indebted to him for his History of English Poetry, which he brings down to the early part of the seventeenth century. No one before him had attempted such a task; and, although his work is rather a rare mass of valuable materials than a well articulated history, it is of great value for its collected facts, and for its suggestions as to where the scholar may pursue his studies farther.
Joseph Warton, 1722-1800: a brother of Thomas Warton; he published translations and essays and poems. Among the translations was that of the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, which is valued for its exactness and perspicuity.
Frances Burney, (Madame D'Arblay,) 1752-1840: the daughter of Dr. Burney, a musical composer. While yet a young girl, she astonished herself and the world by her novel of Evelina, which at once took rank among the standard fictions of the day. It is in the style of Richardson, but more truthful in the delineation of existing manners, and in the expression of sentiment. She afterwards published Cecilia and several other tales, which, although excellent, were not as good as the first. She led an almost menial life, as one of the ladies in waiting upon Queen Charlotte; but the genuine fame achieved by her writings in some degree relieved the sense of thraldom, from which she happily escaped with a pension. The novels of Madame D'Arblay are the intermediate step between the novels of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett, and the Waverly novels of Walter Scott. They are entirely free from any taint of immorality; and they were among the first feminine efforts that were received with enthusiasm: thus it is that, without being of the first order of merit, they mark a distinct era in English letters.
Edmund Burke, 1730-1797: he was born in Dublin, and educated at Trinity College. He studied law, but soon found his proper sphere in public life. He had brilliant literary gifts; but his fame is more that of a statesman and an orator, than an author. Prominent in parliament, he took noble ground in favor of American liberty in our contest with the mother country, and uttered speeches which have remained as models of forensic eloquence. His greatest oratorical efforts were his famous speeches as one of the committee of impeachment in the case of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India. Whatever may be thought of Hastings and his administration, the famous trial has given to English oratory some of its noblest specimens; and the people of England learned more of their empire in India from the learned, brilliant, and exhaustive speeches of Burke, than they could have learned in any other way. The greatest of his written works is: Reflections on the Revolution in France, written to warn England to avoid the causes of such colossal evil. In 1756 he had published his Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. This has been variously criticized; and, although written with vigor of thought and brilliancy of style, has now taken its place among the speculations of theory, and not as establishing permanent canons of aesthetical science. His work entitled The Vindication of Natural Society, by a late noble writer, is a successful attempt to overthrow the infidel system of Lord Bolingbroke, by applying it to civil society, and thus showing that it proved too much—“that if the abuses of or evils sometimes connected with religion invalidate its authority, then every institution, however beneficial, must be abandoned.” Burke's style is peculiar, and, in another writer, would be considered pompous and pedantic; but it so expresses the grandeur and dignity of the man, that it escapes this criticism. His learning, his private worth, his high aims and incorruptible faith in public station, the dignity of his statesmanship, and the power of his oratory, constitute Mr. Burke as one of the noblest characters of any English period; and, although his literary reputation is not equal to his political fame, his accomplishments in the field of letters are worthy of admiration and honorable mention.
Hugh Blair, 1718-1800: a Presbyterian divine in Edinburgh, Dr. Blair deserves special mention for his lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, which for a long time constituted the principal text-book on those subjects in our schools and colleges. A better understanding of the true scope of rhetoric as a science has caused this work to be superseded by later text-books. Blair's lectures treat principally of style and literary criticism, and are excellent for their analysis of some of the best authors, and for happy illustrations from their works. Blair wrote many eloquent sermons, which were published, and was one of the strong champions of Macpherson, in the controversy concerning the poems of Ossian. He occupied a high place as a literary critic during his life.
William Paley, 1743-1805: a clergyman of the Established Church, he rose to the dignity of Archdeacon and Chancellor of Carlisle. At first thoughtless and idle, he was roused from his unprofitable life by the earnest warnings of a companion, and became a severe student and a vigorous writer on moral and religious subjects. Among his numerous writings, those principally valuable are: Horae Paulinae, and A View of the Evidences of Christianity—the former setting forth the life and character of St. Paul, and the latter being a clear exposition of the truth of Christianity, which has long served as a manual of academic instruction. His treatise on Natural Theology is, in the words of Sir James Mackintosh, “the wonderful work of a man who, after sixty, had studied anatomy in order to write it.” Later investigations of science have discarded some of his facts; but the handling of the subject and the array of arguments are the work of a skilful and powerful hand. He wrote, besides, a work on Moral and Political Philosophy, and numerous sermons. His theory of morals is, that whatever is expedient is right; and thus he bases our sense of duty upon the ground of the production of the greatest amount of happiness. This low view has been successfully refuted by later writers on moral science.