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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

IX. Lesser Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists

§ 23. Tragicomedy as exemplified in the Plays of Lodowick Carlell, Henry Glapthorne and Sir William D’Avenant

In conclusion, we may rapidly enumerate among later writers of the Jacobean age those dramatists who are important only because they initiated the type of play which, in its full development in the Restoration period, came to be known as the “heroic drama.” In this connection, the insipid and tedious tragicomedies of Lodowick Carlell have importance. Carlell is said to have come from the stock which afterwards produced Thomas Carlyle. He was a Scot, born in 1602, who came to court to make his fortune and rose to the position of keeper of the forest at Richmond. Of his plays, which began in 1629, four tragicomedies remain, two of which are in two parts. They are taken from contemporary romances, Spanish or French. French romance, as written by D’Urfé and Mlle. de Scudéry, was characterised by a refinement of sentiment which cut it off from real life and made it vapid and extravagant. In our own drama, the romance of Fletcher shows a tendency to exaggeration; the dramatic thrill ceases to represent reality; it begins to have a note of hysteria, and to enjoy its own deliciousness; emotion is dwelt upon, sentiment is refined, till love, honour and friendship are taken altogether out of the world of reality. Queen Henrietta Maria’s French tastes and upbringing added the example of French romance to tendencies already prevailing in England, and rendered the influence of the court upon the drama merely enervating. Fleay says that Carlell’s plays “show what rubbish was palatable to Charles and Henrietta.” The peculiar extravagance of romantic sentiment which these plays exhibit goes along with a looseness and incoherence of blank verse very accurately described by the same critic as “a riot of hybrid iambic.” Dryden’s use of rime was almost needed to bring back some form into this chaos. The plays of Henry Glapthorne are noticeable from this point of view. His three comedies, at their worst, sink as low as Cartwright and, at their best, touch the level of Mayne or Nabbes; but his more serious work, consisting of The Ladies Priviledge, Argalus and Parthenia and Albertus Wallenstein, approaches more nearly to literature than any of the parallel efforts of Carlell, Mayne, Cartwright, or Thomas Killigrew. The first of these plays, which ends as a comedy, belongs to the type of tragicomedy in which extravagant sentiment insists upon submitting itself to absurd tasks in the effort to prove its heroism. The second is a pastoral, also conforming to the tragicomedy type; and the third is history treated on the same lines. The plays, therefore, illustrate the enervating and disintegrating effect of heroic sentiment on all the chief forms of English drama. But it is William D’Avenant whose work best enables us to observe the transition to the heroic drama of Dryden. His first two plays were tragedies in Fletcher’s grimmest style, dated 1626 and 1627, and these were followed by two able comedies which enjoyed considerable popularity. After 1630, illness incapacitated him for several years; and, when he resumes work as a dramatist, his style has altered, and four plays, Love and Honour, 1634, The Platonick Lovers, 1635, The Fair Favourite, 1638, and The Unfortunate Lover, 1638, show him under French influences and as the leading exponent of the cult of platonic love, of which queen Henrietta herself was the patron. The Platonick Lovers is a budget of speeches and disputations on this unreal and undramatic theme; it is curious to the student of manners, but futile as literature. D’Avenant lived to revive the theatre shortly before the Restoration, and to contribute to its literature after that date. He will, therefore, receive some further notice in a later volume.