The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 1. Significance of the term The Eighteenth Century English Drama; Queen Annes reign a period of transition in English Dramatic History; Cibber, Steele and Rowe
The reign of queen Anne (1702–14) may be regarded, therefore, as a period of transition in English drama. Though the current of restoration comedy still runs strong in the first decade of the eighteenth century, in Vanbrugh’s later works and in Farquhar’s plays, the tide of drama turns with the moralised comedies of Colley Cibber and the sentimental dramas of Richard Steele. Cibber strove deliberately to moralise the drama. He ascribed the success of his first comedy to the “moral Delight receiv’d from its Fable,” and, in reviewing his own dramatic career, claimed to “have had the Interest and Honour of Virtue always in view.” Imperfect as his ethical standards often appear to modern critics, there is little reason to question the sincerity of his intention to reform comedy. To the moral aim of Cibber, Steele united sentiment. Without the epigrammatic brilliancy of Congreve or the fertile invention of Farquhar, he sought to sustain comedy by a different method. If comedy was moralised by Cibber, it was sentimentalised by Steele.
Meanwhile, tragedy, also, was showing signs of transition. The heroic drama of the restoration had torn passion to tatters; but the queen Anne age inclined more toward classical constraint than toward romantic licence. Even Nicholas Rowe, who, in The Fair Penitent (1703), followed an Elizabethan model and wrote Jane Shore (1714) “in imitation of Shakespear’s style,” shows classical tendencies in limitation of the number of characters, in restriction of dramatic action and in rejection of comic relief. His chief dramas—to use his own phrase, “shetragedies”—have an almost feminine refinement of tone. In the moralised sentiment with which they enforce their pathetic appeals there is a close kinship between the tragedy of Rowe and the comedy of Steele. In sentimental drama, pity is akin to love.