The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 3. French Classical and Native influences upon English Eighteenth Century Drama
Though the influence of French classical drama and dramatic standards upon eighteenth century English drama demands ample recognition, it should not be overestimated. Not even under queen Anne was the Elizabethan tradition forgotten. Shakespeare’s tragedies, Jonson’s comedies and Beaumont and Fletcher’s romantic plays continued to hold the stage. Rowe turned freely to Elizabethan models and sought to imitate Shakespeare’s style. Even Addison, a confirmed classicist, in at least one memorable passage, treated Shakespeare’s genius as above artificial restraints. English translators of French tragedy sometimes abated the rigid classical conventions in their adaptations for the freer English stage. In reality, English drama, even during the Augustan period, was often an unconscious compromise between the restraint of French theory and the inherited freedom of English dramatic practice. Furthermore, the English element in queen Anne drama is not confined to the survival of Elizabethan influences. The note of sentiment struck in contemporary comedy by Steele is perceptible, not merely in the tragedy of Rowe, but, perhaps, even in classical English drama itself. The triumphs of Philips and Addison were founded on the distresses of the heroine and the moralised sentiments of the hero. Despite, then, the dominance of classical standards, queen Anne drama is not a merely Gallicised product. It is the resultant of English and continental forces.
If critical survey of the period be broadened so as to include the history of the stage as well as of the drama, the dramatic currents will appear still more complex. Dorset gardens theatre had catered more and more to the popular demand for spectacle. Foreign singers and dancers invaded the boards of the patent theatres. The successful advent of Italian opera made the judicious Cibber grieve and Steele demand that Britons should “from foreign insult save this English stage.” But even Colley Cibber, sworn advocate of regular drama, compromised his convictions and, as a manager, “had not Virtue enough to starve by opposing a Multitude that would have been too hard for me.” Meanwhile, the attacks of Collier and his followers were continued, through almost a generation, until, in 1726, William Law published his treatise, The Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage Entertainment fully demonstrated. Thus, beset by foes without and by rivals within the theatre, regular drama had fallen on evil days.