Sheridan and Goldsmith

In TS Eliot’s A Dialogue of Dramatic Poetry, we hear the claim that "There is no precedent for a nation having two great periods of drama". After Restoration comedy had faded out, one could have been forgiven for presuming that England was going to fail absolutely to buck that trend. It is hard to find any real continuity in drama at the best of times, it being a form moulded around (fickle) popular tastes to a greater degree even than fiction. As Raymond Williams claims, "Drama often shows more clearly and more quickly than the other art, the deep patterns and changes in our general ideas of reality"4. However, even despite the lack of continuity and the inevitable changes in popular taste, it is strange how neglected drama became after the 1700. The situation was not helped by the second-rate work of Colley Cibber who was much more concerned about spectacle and fame than literary worth: see The Careless Husband (1704) and the work of contemporary Richard Steele (The Tender Husband (1705) etc.). Only with Richard Sheridan’s fame after The Rivals (1775) and his later acclaimed work, The School for Scandal (1777), was there some kind of resurgence in the quality of new theatrical writing. However, these were not plays of any great gravity or depth, and did not actually stretch comic theatre far from Congreve and all (although by this time the Restoration comedies were playing in toned-down versions leading to a situation in the 19th century where they were ignored completely). Even Sheridan came to drama by accident when hit by poverty in the early 1770s due to various difficulties concerning his marriage to Eliza Linley. A satirist who wrote with wit and an easy sense of how to captivate the audience while mocking the hypocrisy of the world, Sheridan was effectively ruined by drama itself, sent into debt by the purchase of a theatre and payment of actors’ wages.

Other than Sheridan, only Oliver Goldsmith genuinely merits a mention as a significant dramatist of the time. Primarily, Goldsmith was a novelist (see The Vicar of Wakefield) but in the late 1760s took to writing plays, starting with the well-received comedy The Good Natur’d Man in 1768. He reacted strongly against the playwriting of the period (see Richardson, Sterne etc.): what "London Magazine" termed, "that monster called Sentimental Comedy", and was therefore considered a literary hero of sorts for a while. She Stoops to Conquer (1773) was a particular success with its amusing premise of a man mistakenly staying at a private house under the impression that it is an inn and, under this illusion, making love to the daughter of the ‘landlord’, thinking she is a servant girl.

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