The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 25. Kelly
Though the tide of sentimental drama was yet to reach its height in Hugh Kelly and Cumberland, The Jealous Wife has some foreshadowings of Sheridan’s comic masterpieces. It inherits something of the spirit, without the gross immorality, of restoration comedy. The restoration contempt for the country and the exaltation of good manners at the expense of good morals reappear in Lady Freelove and Lord Trinket, as they do in Lady Teazle and her scandal school. Lord Trinket’s French phrases have the familiar Gallic affectation; Lady Freelove, in action as in name, recalls a stock restoration character; and Sir Harry Beagle’s rough-and-ready love-making somewhat resembles that of sailor Ben in Congreve’s Love for Love, with the lingo of the stable replacing that of the sea. Charles Oakly, with his easy morals, is an earlier instance of a type more familiar in Charles Surface. Captain O’Cutter, with his readiness for a duel without inquiry as to its cause, suggests the Irish ancestry of Sir Lucius O’Trigger. Though without Sheridan’s brilliant wit and masterly dramatic skill, Colman fashioned the rough materials of drama into really popular comedy.
During the next two years, he produced successfully two after-pieces, The Musical Lady and The Deuce is in Him, and a revisicn of Philaster. With the collaboration of Garrick, he rose again to genuine comedy in The Clandestine Marriage (1766). Taking a hint from one of Hogarth’s plates in his Marriage-à-la-Mode, and animating, at least, some characters said to have been drawn from Townley’s False Concord, Colman and Garrick produced a highly effective comedy. Lord Ogleby, a late connection of the Fopling Flutters and Foppingtons of restoration comedy, is a distinct character creation. In the illiterate Mrs. Heidelberg, some have sought the original of Mrs. Malaprop, but there is a decided difference between her blunders in pronunciation and Mrs. Malaprop’s “select words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced.”
After The Clandestine Marriage, Colman’s theatrical record continues for more than a score of years, but without any notable contribution to original drama. During the seven years of his management of Covent garden theatre (1767–74), he produced various minor pieces of his own composition, ranging from comedy to operetta. The credit attaching to his Shakespearean revivals is lessened by his retention of a happy ending for King Lear, and the honour of having produced The Good-Natur’d Man and She Stoops to Conquer is clouded by the obstacles which he allowed to obstruct Goldsmith’s path. Yet, as a member of the Literary club, as a successful dramatist and manager, translator of Terence’s comedies, editor of the dramatic works of Beaumont and Fletcher and writer of prologues and epilogues—among them the epilogue to The School for Scandal—the elder Colman was a noteworthy figure in the theatrical and literary world of the latter half of the century.
The success of occasional comedies like The Jealous Wife and The Clandestine Marriage did not, for the time being, seriously check the popularity of sentimental drama. Six days before Goldsmith’s Good-Natur’d Man finally achieved its be-lated production at Covent garden, Garrick triumphantly produced at Drury lane Hugh Kelly’s False Delicacy (1768). It was the clash between sentimental comedy and an upstart rival, and for the moment victory rested with the established favourite. In contrast with the moderate favour accorded to Goldsmith’s piece, False Delicacy won a theatrical triumph. Three thousand copies of it sold in a day, it was translated into several languages and was acted with applause at Lisbon and Paris. False Delicacy is full of the wise saws and “modern instances” of sentimental comedy. One of its phrases, indeed, may be taken, not merely as Kelly’s own motto, but as the creed of sentimental drama—“The stage should be a school of morality.” Two characters, Mrs. Harley and Cecil, afford some comic relief to the usual didactic banalities of the dialogue. Yet the “elevated minds” of the chief personages continue to deal in “delicate absurdities” and to emit moral platitudes until the final fall of the curtain.
Kelly’s next comedy, A Word to the Wise (1770), despite its sentimental appeal, was refused a fair hearing by his political opponents and was driven off the stage. Clementina (1771), a dull tragedy, was followed by a happier return to comedy, A School for Wives (1773), which achieved five editions within two years, and had various stage revivals during the next forty years. The failure of a later comedy, The Man of Reason, marked the close of Kelly’s theatrical efforts. With Kelly, as with Richard Cumberland, dramatic probability is sacrificed on the altar of sentiment.