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

IV. The Drama and the Stage

§ 16. Fielding and Burlesque

Even before the deference at first accorded to Voltaire had perceptibly abated, classical drama did not hold the English stage unchallenged. Lillo’s bold innovations threatened its prestige, and pantomime its popularity. The vein of dramatic burlesque struck by Gay in What-d’ ye-Call-it and The Beggar’s Opera was developed by Fielding and Carey. In Tom Thumb; A Tragedy (1730), afterwards called The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (1731), Fielding (of whose comedies something has been said in an earlier chapter) ridiculed the absurdities of contemporary drama, and, in his later mock critical and explanatory notes, satirised the theories of Corneille and such tragedies as Cato, Busiris and Fenton’s popular Mariamne (1723). The coarser burlesque of Fielding’s Covent Garden Tragedy (1733) is directed, in part, against Philips’s Distrest Mother. The spirit of Tom Thumb is maintained in Henry Carey’s Chrononhotonthologos, the Most Tragical Tragedy that ever was Tragediz’d by any Company of Tragedians (1737), and, less effectively, in his burlesque opera, The Dragon of Wantley (1734), which displays, in the words of its dedication, “the beauty of nonsense, so prevailing in Italian opera.” While Fielding and Carey thus out-Heroded Herod, they, too, were on the side of sanity in English drama. Tom Thumb is the ironic expression of that revolt against conventional English tragedy which Fielding phrased seriously in his prologue to Lillo’s Fatal Curiosity:

  • No fustian Hero rages here to-night;
  • No armies fall, to fix a tyrant’s right.
  • To the negative effect of burlesque, Fielding added a positive influence against the accepted dramatic conventions by devoting a large share of his energies to the composition of short dramatic pieces. Though some of his plays accept the five-act formula, most of them do not exceed three acts. The production of brief dramatic pieces by Samuel Foote and other followers of Fielding is intimately connected with the eighteenth century fashion of appending to regular drama an after-piece, usually farce or pantomime. The ultimate effects of this practice may be illustrated by the fact that Sheridan’s Critic was produced, originally, as an after-piece to Hamlet.