The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 26. The Reaction against Sentimental Comedy
The development of English drama during the period reviewed in the present chapter is too varied and complex to admit of being summarised in a narrow formula. Yet, despite the diversity of counter currents, the stream of sentimental drama runs strong from Steele to Hugh Kelly and Richard Cumberland. Pantomime, ballad-opera, burlesque and farce often oppose its progress. The current of tragedy frequently flows from classical or Elizabethan sources. The breadth of the restoration spirit still, at times, ripples the placid waters of formal comedy. Yet, moralised tragedy and moralised comedy contribute alike to the stream of sentimental drama. Even Lillo and Moore, who sturdily stemmed the tide of conventional tragedy, were submerged in the waves of sentiment, and The Jealous Wife and The Clandestine Marriage did not prevent the course of sentimental comedy from running smooth in Kelly’s False Delicacy and Cumberland’s West Indian. Nevertheless, the undercurrent of reaction was gathering strength. To the satirical attacks of burlesque upon sentimental drama, Fielding had added his description in Tom Jones of that “very grave and solemn entertainment, without any low wit, or humour, or jests,” in which there was not “anything which could provoke a laugh.” Goldsmith, who dared to challenge the authority of the epithet “low” with which critics were wont to stigmatise comedy which was not “genteel,” and who learned the power of that “single monosyllable” from the excision of his own bailiffs’ scene in The Good Natur’d Man, was not to be daunted in his attack upon “this species of bastard tragedy” called sentimental drama. In his Essay on the Theatre; or, A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy, he put the pertinent query: “Which deserves the preference,—the weeping sentimental comedy so much in fashion at present, or the laughing, and even low comedy, which seems to have been last exhibited by Vanbrugh and Cibber?” The answer was given in the comedies of Goldsmith and of Sheridan.