Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 19. Replies to Collier by Vanbrugh, Farquhar, Dryden, D’Urfey and Dennis

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 19. Replies to Collier by Vanbrugh, Farquhar, Dryden, D’Urfey and Dennis

So the worthy non-juror laid about him, fathering vice upon blameless words, and clipping wiser, better men than himself to fit his bed of Procrustes. And even if we allowed that there was no difference between deed and speech, that a writer who mentioned a crime had already committed it, that, in fact, every theatre should be supplied with a gallows, and a judge and jury sit permanently in the Green Room, it would still be easy to convict Collier of injustice, especially towards Congreve. Nothing can be said in a critic’s favour who detects profaneness and immodesty in The Mourning Bride, who condemns the mere use of the words “martyr” and “inspiration,” who finds a depth of blasphemy in the sentence “my Jehu was a hackney-coachman.” There can be no doubt, however, that Collier’s pamphlet enjoyed all the success which scandal could bring it. For a while the town talked and thought of nothing else. The king issued a solemn proclamation against vice and profaneness. Congreve and D’Urfey were prosecuted by the Middlesex magistrates. Fines were imposed upon Betterton and Mrs. Bracegirdle. Then, alarmed at the publicity of the pamphlet, the poets began to write in their defence. More wisely guided, they would have held their tongues. The encounter could not be closely engaged. Jeremy, having said little to their purpose, should have been ignored. To demolish his principles might have been worth while. To oppose him in detail was merely to incur another violent onslaught.

As they used other weapons, and fought another battle than Collier, neither Congreve nor Vanbrugh emerged with credit from the encounter. “Congreve,” said Cibber, “seemed too much hurt to be able to defend himself, and Vanbrugh felt Collier so little that his wit only laughed at his lashes.” Vanbrugh, indeed, had put forth an admirable defence in anticipation, and with an evident reference to Rabelais.

  • “As for your saints,” he wrote in a preface to The Relapse “(your thorough-pac’d ones, I mean, with skrew’d faces and wry mouths), I despair of them; for they are friends to nobody: They love nothing but their altars and themselves; they have too much zeal to have any charity; they make debauches in piety, as sinners do in wine; and are as quarrelsome in their religion, as other people are in their drink: so I hope nobody will mind what they say.”
  • That is in the right vein. But it was Farquhar, who, in an ingenious little work, The Adventures of Covent Garden, justly ascribed to him by Leigh Hunt, made the wisest comment of all, to the effect
  • that the best way of answering Mr. Collier was not to have replied at all; for there was so much fire in his book, had not his adversaries thrown in fuel, it would have fed upon itself, and so gone out in a blaze.
  • The others flung themselves into the controversy with what spirit they might. Dryden, worn with the battle of life and letters, looked wearily on the fray. He owned that in many things Collier had “taxed him justly,” and added “if he be my enemy, let him triumph.” But he did not plead guilty, as is generally supposed, without extenuating circumstances and without the stern condemnation of his adversary.
  • “It were not difficult to prove,” said he, “that in many places he has perverted my meaning by his glosses; and interpreted my words into blasphemy and bawdry, of which they are not guilty. Besides that he is too much given to horseplay in his raillery; and comes to battel, like a dictator from the plough. I will not say, the Zeal of God’s House has eaten him up; but I am sure it has devoured some part of his good manners and civility.”
  • D’Urfey rushed into the field with a preface to The Campaigners, like the light horseman that he was, and with a song of The New Reformation dismissed the non-juror from his mind:
  • But let State Revolvers
  • And Treason Absolvers
  • Excuse if I sing:
  • The Scoundrel that chooses
  • To cry down the Muses,
  • Would cry down the King.
  • With far greater solemnity did Dennis, who himself was not attacked by Collier, defend the Usefulness of the Stage, to the Happiness of Mankind, to Government, and to Religion. Collier replied to Congreve with superfluous violence, to Vanbrugh and Dennis with what seemed to him, no doubt, an amiable restraint. For years the warfare was carried on in pamphlet and prologue, and echoes of it may be heard to-day. The high respect in which Collier has been held remains a puzzle of criticism. Macaulay, for instance, finds him “a singularly fair controversialist,” and at the same time regards Rymer as the worst critic that ever lived, not perceiving that their method is one and the same; that, if Collier is in the right of it, so is Rymer. No doubt, the hand of tradition is strong, but to forget all that has been said in the non-juror’s favour, and to return to his text, is to awaken rudely from a dream. There seems to the present writer nothing of worth in Collier’s pamphlet, save the forcible handling of the vernacular, which he owed, as has been said, to Rymer. Not even is his sincerity obvious. He strains his sarcasm as he strains his argument. His object was to abolish not to reform the stage, and he should have begun, not ended, with his Dissuasive from the Playhouse (1703). And if the respect lavished upon him is surprising, still stranger is the conviction which prevails of his influence. Scott and Macaulay, Leigh Hunt and Lecky speak with one voice. Yet a brief examination of the facts proves that Collier’s success was a success of scandal and no more. The poets bowed their knee not an inch in obedience to Collier. They replied to him, they abused him, and they went their way. Congreve’s true answer was not his Amendments but The Way of the World. Vanbrugh showed in The Confederacy how lightly he had taken his scolding. Farquhar made his first flight in December, 1698, and nobody can assert that he clipped the wings of his fancy with Collier’s shears. Meanwhile, the old repertory remained unchanged in the theatres. The pages of Genest, a much surer guide than tradition or desire, make evident the complete failure of Collier’s attack. Dryden, Shadwell, Aphra Behn and D’Urfey, Ravenscroft and Wycherley were still triumphant. In the very year of Collier’s supposed triumph, The Mourning Bride, the peculiar object of his attack, “brought the greatest audience they have this winter.” Congreve, the most bitterly maligned of all, seized the highest popularity. Love for Love flourished in the nineteenth century. Don Quixote, which Collier thought he had left dead on the field, was still played a quarter of a century after the fray, and The Country Wife long outlived it. Nor were the alterations, said to have been introduced into the plays, of a feather’s weight. To change Valentine’s “I am truth” into “I am honest” was to spoil a fine passage, not to recast the stage; and Vanbrugh’s transformation of the drunken clergyman, in whose robes Sir John Brute disguised himself, into a drunken woman, was not made until 1725. The new plays were of no other fashion than the old. Cibber’s Careless Husband (1704), Charles Shadwell’s Fair Quaker of Deal (1710), Gay’s Three Hours after Marriage (1717), the comedies of Mrs. Centlivre and Fielding afford no evidence of a chastened spirit. Sir Richard Blackmore, who had anticipated Collier, did not conceal his disappointment.

  • “The stage has become impregnable,” he wrote in 1716, “where loose poets, supported by numbers, power, and interest, in defiance of all rules of decency and virtue still provide new snares and new temptations to seduce the people, and corrupt their manners.”
  • The reformation, in brief, was, as Tom Brown called it, “a drowsie reformation,” and when it came in fact, it came not from the admonitions of Jeremy Collier who was remembered only as a cat-o’-nine-tails of the stage, or as a proper jest for an epilogue, but from a change in the manners of the people.