The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

II. Steele and Addison

§ 3. His Comedies

This missionary spirit, when roused, impelled him to other forms of expression. Having not yet found his peculiar bent, he was inevitably attracted to the drama. During a century, comedy and tragedy, with intervals of repression, had been one of the most popular outlets for an author and must have seemed exactly the medium for a man with Steele’s sense of humour and knowledge of character. Besides, the moral movement among the people, which had been influencing Steele, had also caught the theatre. Sir Richard Blackmore and Jeremy Collier were calling for a pure and reformed drama, and so Steele’s conscience, as well as his tastes, urged him to put his ideas on the stage. Since the restoration, writers of comedies had aimed at brilliance and cleverness. As the court was amused at cuckoldry, they represented seducers and seduced as endowed with all the wit, ingenuity, or beauty which society admired, while intrigues leading to adultery could always be rounded off into a well-constructed, if somewhat unoriginal, plot. Steele went over the same ground—love, courtship, married life, intrigue; his purpose, however, was avowedly to paint virtue and vice in their true colours. Following the example of Molière, from whom he borrowed freely, he covered his bad characters with ridicule and confusion. But he was not content to let them occupy the front of the stage, as Molière had done. He wished to champion virtue; so his villains, for the most part, are minor characters, dismissed with humiliation at the dénouement, while his leading figures are quite ordinary people, whose careers begin and end in the triumph of homely virtues. Such characters, however desirable in a book of devotions, lack true comic interest, and Steele was obliged to lead his heroes and heroines through a series of domestic calamities and surprises, in order to sustain sympathy. In The Funeral, or Grief-à-la-mode (1701), his first and best constructed comedy, the defunct Lord Brumpton has to be kept secretly alive all through the play, in order to shame his worldly widow’s enjoyment of affluence and freedom, and to reward his daughters’ two suitors. In The Lying Lover (1703), copied from Corneille’s Menteur, young Bookwit becomes drunk, then fights and appears to kill his rival, is arrested, suffers all the pangs of remorse and the horrors of Newgate and, after this gruesome lesson against intemperance and duelling, learns that his victim still lives and ends by marrying the sweetheart whom he had courted with a fidelity rare on the stage. In The Tender Husband (1705), the third and last of Steele’s plays at this period of his career, he rises to one of Molière’s leading ideas, in the conception that a son tyrannised till manhood in a boorish home will end by deceiving his father and contracting a foolish marriage, and that a girl, left to the companionship of French romances, will become a “Quixote in petticoats.” But, when the elder Clerimont is presented as despatching his mistress, disguised as a gallant, to tempt the virtue of his wife and then, on the failure of the seducer, tearfully seeking a reconciliation, all dramatic propriety is sacrificed, in order to give a by no means convincing picture of conjugal tenderness. Such was the tone which the moral movement of queen Anne’s reign introduced into the theatre, and, since succeeding dramatists came under this influence, Steele may be regarded as the founder of sentimental comedy. Unhappily, as in the case of most comedies with a purpose, plots are sacrificed to the moral, and, apart from improbability of incident, Steele’s plays show but little of that correctness of construction which the age exacted.

If Steele’s dramatic work added scant laurels to his reputation, it was of the first importance in forming his mind. He had come to his task with the same stock of ideas as had served him in composing The Christian Hero. But, as a playwright, he had to make these ideas talk and act. He had to penetrate beneath the surface of life, and to show how often a profession or training degrades a man; how servants inevitably become mimics of their masters’ excesses and frivolities; how women, who are untrained in the serious responsibilities of life, fall victims to fulsome adulation and often end in a marriage of convenience; how the best of them, for lack of moral sense, become tyrannical and fastidious before wedlock, and how others prey like vampires on their deluded husbands. Thus, Steele had learnt to look inside the domestic circle and to note how fashion and conventionality were warping the natural goodness of his fellow-creatures. Here and there, he hints at the conception of the purer and simpler, though rather emotional, family life which he was afterwards to depict. But, as we have seen, comedy was not a suitable medium for teaching of this nature. Although an atmosphere of earnest inquiry and reflection had formed itself in London, and had reached the stage, the public of the playhouse was not yet in a mood for social and moral speculation. It still expected wit and amusement. Steele had yet to discover where the world of thought that embodied the qualities which he had in mind was to be found, and how he was to approach it.