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Eighteenth-century drama.

The theater in eighteenth-century England generally flourished as a commercial enterprise. Theater managers promoted popular interest in spectacular productions, and great actors developed loyal followers. As a literary expression, however, the drama had few bright spots.

Sentimental Plays

After the decline of the brilliant Restoration comedy of manners, sentimental drama, aimed at appealing to middle-class audiences, came to dominate the stage. Such plays relied on the "sudden change of heart" in the rake-hero to give the audience an emotional thrill. Colley Cibber's play The Careless Husband (1705) is an early example of the type. One of the most sentimental of these plays is Richard Steele's The Conscious Lovers (1722), a play intended to make the audience weep in sympathy with its hero and heroine. Thus the dramas were not very distinct in tone from the pathetic tragedy of George Lillo, The London Merchant, or The History of George Barnwell, where the audience wallows in sympathy as the hero goes to his death.

Satiric Plays

The theater of wit survived in satiric comedies such as Gay's Beggar's Opera and in the satirical farces of Henry Fielding, such as The Tragedy of Tom Thumb (1731). In the midcentury, Oliver Goldsmith deplored the lack of what he called "laughing comedy" and wrote his own nonsentimental offering, She Stoops to Conquer (1773), which was not at first well received. But Sheridan was more successful in following the direction that Goldsmith had laid out.

Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774)

Already discussed as a lyric poet, as a member of Samuel Johnson's Literary Club, and as a hack writer who nevertheless expressed concern about the declining state of literature in England during his era, Goldsmith wrote in 1773 a critical essay titled Essay on the Theatre, or A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy. In this essay Goldsmith cited Aristotle and called the modern sentimental comedy a "bastard tragedy" because it focused on the calamities of middle-class life rather than on its follies. He sought return to the sort of comedy that causes laughter, not weeping. The same year, Goldsmith wrote a successful play that fulfilled his own prescription for good comedy.


This play is set in the country among unfashionable people, a family of country gentry who live in a big, old-fashioned, rambling house. The children in the Hardcastle family are Kate, Mr. Hardcastle's pretty daughter by a previous marriage, and the over-indulged booby Tony Lumpkin, Mrs. Hardcastle's son by a previous marriage. Mrs. Hardcastle is promoting a marriage between her step-daughter and her son, but Kate is to clever to be wasted on such a fellow. The plot is very complex.

Act I. In act I young Marlow, son of an old friend of Mr. Hardcastle has been sent down to the country to court Kate, but he is too bashful. He is always shy with women of his own social class, although he is not so with servants and other lower-class girls. Marlow and his friend Hastings, who loves Kate's cousin Constance, lose their way. Tony directs them to the Hardcastle house but tells them that it is an inn so that the two young visitors will make fools of themselves.

Act II. Act II begins as Marlow and Hastings enter the Hardcastle home, thinking that it is an inn. They treat their host as an innkeeper and complain about their reception. They demand to know the supper menu and quarrel with what is offered. Mr. Hardcastle is astounded, having expected a shy young man. Meanwhile Hastings finds Constance, and they agree to keep Marlow ignorant of where he really is to prevent an attack of shyness. Marlow meets Kate, who hides her face in a huge bonnet and engages in an insipid sentimental dialogue with him. She plans to "cure" him of his shyness by acting the role of a servant. Tony, who does not want to marry Constance, reaches an agreement to help Hastings elope with her, thus getting her out of the way.

Act III. In the beginning of act III, Mr. Hardcastle and his daughter, Kate, talk about Marlow; Hardcastle sees the youth as rude and bold, while Kate knows he is shy. Meanwhile, Tony has stolen Constance's dowry, consisting of jewels, from Mrs. Hardcastle's room and given them to Hastings in anticipation of the elopement. Mrs. Hardcastle discovers the loss because Constance had asked her for the jewels. Kate, pretending to be the barmaid, flirts with Marlow. His behavior becomes very forward, but they are interrupted by Mr. Hardcastle, who is once again shocked at Marlow's boldness and threatens Kate that he will throw Marlow out. Kate asks him to delay one hour.

Act IV. Act IV reveals a mix-up with the jewels. Tony, who stole them for Constance, gave them to Hastings, who gave them for safekeeping to Marlow, who thought they would be safer in the care of the innkeeper's wife, so he gave them back to Mrs. Hardcastle. Thus the elopement is delayed. Marlow boasts of his success with the pretty barmaid (Kate), but he is confronted by Mr. Hardcastle, who demands that he leave the house. Marlow is confused. Kate sets him straight about the house, telling him that it is a family home and not an inn, but she claims to be merely a poor relation of the family. Embarrassed and conscience-stricken, Marlow wants to flee, but when Kate weeps at his leaving, he melts. His reserve is conquered. Now Hastings and Constance have new problems. They have decided to elope without the jewels, but their plan is uncovered because Mrs. Hardcastle has read the note from Hastings to Tony concerning the getaway. (Tony can't read, so he showed the note to his mother.) Mrs. Hardcastle is outraged and prepares to take Constance deeper into the country to stay with the odious Aunt Petigree. Marlow argues with Hastings about the trick of letting him believe he was at an inn, but Tony says he has a plan. They must wait two hours.

Act V. In act V Old Sir Charles Marlow, the hero's father, arrives; his son's error is explained and laughed at by Mr. Hardcastle. But the relationship of their children is a puzzle; Kate says that Marlow loves her, but Marlow says he scarcely knows "Miss Hardcastle," not realizing that the sweet girl who identified herself as a poor relation was really she. Meanwhile, at the back of the garden, Tony, who has been driving Constance and Mrs. Hastings around in circles for two hours, has now dumped them in a pond, pretending an accident. Mrs. Hardcastle is terrified, and the exhausted Constance resolves that she will ask outright to marry Hastings, appealing to Mr. Hardcastle. Back inside the house, Kate has arranged a dialogue with Marlow, with their two fathers listening behind a screen. At first Marlow tries to reject Kate because he thinks she is poor, but his love is too great. When he speaks his feelings sincerely, the fathers emerge from hiding and bless the marriage. Constance and Hastings come in and ask for mercy; their marriage is also approved, to the general joy of everyone.

The ending is a conventional comic resolution; the two young men deserve and get the girls and their dowries. Tony is free and his mother is reconciled. Kate has "stopped" by pretending to be lower-class and poor, but she has conquered by winning a sincere declaration of love from Marlow. The play is full of verbal wit, but unlike the Restoration comedies of manners, this comedy is wholesome and innocent, with no immoral situations or indecent dialogue.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816)

The son of an Irish actor and theater manager, Sheridan had a very early success as a comic playwright. He became the manager and part owner of London's Drury Lane Theatre. Later Sheridan's first play, The Rivals (1775), was a remarkable success, largely because of the comic character, Mrs. Malaprop, whose fractured use of the English language made her name a standard term for misuse of vocabulary. Sheridan was an important Whig member of Parliament, celebrated for his oratorical skills. He was also a member, like Goldsmith, of Samuel Johnson's Club.


This witty 1777 comedy contrasts two brothers, Joseph Surface, a hypocrite who mouths dull sentiments while trying to seduce his friend's wife; and his brother, Charles Surface, an apparent neer-do-well who actually has a generous heart. In a second plot, Lady Teazle, the young bride of a middle-aged husband, studies the fashion of gossiping and almost loses her marriage through a flirtation with Charles Surface. In the famous screen scene, in act IV, scene 3, both plots come together. Lady Teazle hides behind a screen in Charles Surface's apartment when her husband, Peter Teazle, comes to ask Charles's advice about his wife. Moved by her husband's sincere concern for her, she resolves not to have an affair with Charles. Then, when the screen accidentally falls, revealing her presence, she refuses to lie to her husband but makes an unfashionable speech of repentance. Though the play promotes goodness of heart, its primary appeal lies in the satirical wit of its mockery of manners.
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Author:McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.
Publication:English Literature to 1785
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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