The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 2. Sentimental Comedy in England and on the Continent
The conventional critical distinction between tragedy and comedy should not, then, be unduly pressed. Doubtless, it is unnecessary to find fault with the term “sentimental comedy,” which is sanctioned by contemporary usage and actually adopted by Goldsmith in his attack upon sentimental drama. But it is important to recognise that the wave of sentiment swept over a wider field than that of English comedy, or even of English drama. It invaded the continent. Destouches, whose residence in England brought him, like Voltaire, into direct contact with English influences, admitted into several of his later comedies (1727–53) a serious undertone. Marivaux touched comedy with pathos and sentiment. Nivelle de la Chaussée, who followed Steele’s dictum that “laughter’s a distorted passion” more closely than did its author, developed sentimental comedy into comédie larmoyante. Voltaire, though by no means ready to permit comedy to forget her function of mirth, found “melting pity” admissible. Diderot drew inspiration from Lillo’s moralised bourgeois tragedy. The very term drame suggests the obliteration of the rigid line between comedy and tragedy. In England and on the continent alike, sentiment tended to break down the barriers of dramatic convention.
Notwithstanding the far-reaching influence of sentimental drama, the record of its rise and progress is but part of the English dramatic history of the eighteenth century. The queen Anne period was, essentially, a critical age, which fixed its standards largely on classical authority. To a very considerable degree, its playwrights reflect the influence of French classical drama and dramatic theory. Racine and Corneille were adapted for the English stage in a whole series of versions. Addison, whose critical influence was cast in favour of dramatic rule and regularity, put classical theory so effectively into practice in Cato (1713) that Voltaire hailed it as the first tragédie raisonnable in English. Stimulated by the successes of Ambrose Philips and Addison, other English playwrights turned to classical models and translated, though often with considerable freedom, such dramas as Le Cid, Cinna and Iphigénie.