The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 21. Homes Douglas
In contrast to many conventional dramas of the period, Home’s Douglas (first acted at Edinburgh in 1756, and in London in 1757) strikes a distinct romantic note. In the desert of Scottish drama, Douglas was an oasis, and, to some patriotic enthusiasts, its author seemed a Scottish Shakespeare. The philosopher Hume ascribed to his friend Home “the true theatric genius of Shakespeare and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one and licentiousness of the other.” Even Gray, in August, 1757, wrote to Walpole: “The author seems to me to have retrieved the true language of the stage, which has been lost for these 100 years.” Age has withered Douglas, and custom staled the declamation of Young Norval. Yet the plot of Home’s drama, based on an old Scots ballad, its native background, and its atmosphere of brooding melancholy, invest it with something of the romantic atmosphere of his friend Collins. A succession of later tragedies showed that Home was unable to repeat his first theatrical success; but Sheridan’s palpable hits in The Critic are incidental proof of the continued stage popularity of Douglas.
The general poverty of original English drama in the middle of the eighteenth century is apparent in comedy as well as in tragedy. Benjamin Hoadly’s popular comedy The Suspicious Husband (1747), which gave to Garrick a most successful part in Ranger, has something of the comic power of earlier drama. But, for the most part, sentimental drama had so constrained formal comedy, that laughter sought free outlet in the larger licence of farce, burlesque and spectacle. Among multifarious theatrical entertainments, attention must be directed to the efforts of Samuel Foote. Early appearances as an actor showed that his forte lay in comic mimicry. In April, 1747, he established himself at the Little theatre in the Haymarket, evading the licensing act by announcing “a Concert of Musick,” or “an Auction of Pictures,” or inviting his friends to drink a “dish of Chocolate” or a “dish of Tea” with him. Thus, for two seasons, Foote found pretexts for mimicry and caricature of Garrick, Mrs. Woffington and other familiar figures of the day. Though he found little trouble in evading the law, he was fortified with a patent in 1766. The grant, though covering only performances during the summer season and limited to his own lifetime, in reality created a third patent theatre.