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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

§ 20. Other Plays of the Garrick Era; Whitehead

The popularity of Shakespeare during the Garrick era did not, however, lead to general adoption of Elizabethan models by playwrights of the period. Adaptations like Garrick’s Gamesters (1757), altered from Shirley’s Gamester, seem somewhat accidental. Otway, Southerne and Rowe were greater favourites on the stage than any Elizabethan writer of tragedy save Shakespeare. In The Earl of Essex (1753), Henry Jones worked over again the theme of one of John Banks’s quasiheroic English dramas; but tragedies such as Johnson’s Irene (1749) follow stricter classical models. The classical cause, indeed, may be said to have received a new impetus of some importance in William Whitehead’s successful version of Horace in The Roman Father (1750). The wave of influence from Philips’s Distrest Mother, which had led to more than a dozen translations of plays by Thomas and Pierre Corneille and Racine within a dozen years, seems to have subsided with William Hatchett’s Rival Father (1730). Whitehead’s success revived the interest that had lain dormant for a score of years. The Roman Father remained a stock play throughout the rest of the century, and, doubtless, was the chief stimulus to some eight or ten other translations from French classical drama during that period. In Creusa, Queen of Athens (1754), Whitehead continued to work the vein of classical tragedy; but The School for Lovers (1762) is an excursion into the realm of comedy. The latter is not without some comic energy, but Sir John Dorilant, “a Man of nice Honour,” and Caelia, who justifies the complaint that she talks at times “like a sentimental lady in a comedy,” have a “nicety of sentiments” which brings them dangerously close to the pitfalls of sentimental drama.

Despite vigorous attacks upon his critical authority, Voltaire maintained, during the third quarter of the eighteenth century, some hold on the English stage. Of English versions of his plays the most successful was Arthur Murphy’s Orphan of China (1759). Orestes (1768), Almida and Zobeide (1771) and Semiramis (1776) adapt other tragedies of Voltaire, while some of his comedies had an English rendering, as in Murphy’s No One’s Enemy but his Own (1764) and Colman’s English Merchant (1767). Merope was, occasionally, revived at Drury lane and seems to have inspired Hoole’s Cyrus (1768). Yet, even the most successful of these pieces could not outrun several tragedies by English playwrights of the period or rival in popularity Shakespearean plays. Voltaire’s influence still counted strongly in maintaining the belief that Shakespeare was not a great dramatic artist; but it could not successfully challenge his actual triumph on the boards.