Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 4. His Farces and cognate Dramatic Pieces

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

II. Fielding and Smollett

§ 4. His Farces and cognate Dramatic Pieces

Unlike Smollett, Fielding never wrote a tragedy; but his work for the stage comprises every other then known kind of drama-comedy, farce, ballad farce, burlesque and adaptation from the French. The first play produced by him was Love in Several Masques, a comedy accepted by Cibber, Wilks and Booth for Drury lane, and acted in February, 1728, by Mrs.Oldfield and others, with great success. His second, brought on the stage of the Goodman’s fields theatre, in January, 1730, was the comedy The Temple Beau. In the following March, at the Haymarket theatre, he gave an example of a vein which was to suit him better than experiments in imitation of Congreve, of which his comedy mainly consists. The Author’s Farce, and The Pleasures of the Town, by “Scriblerus Secundus,” as Fielding now for the first time called himself, satirises the prevalent taste for opera and pantomime. For the character of Luckless, the young, gay and impecunious author of the “puppet-show” The Pleasures of the Town, Fielding has evidently drawn upon himself; and the first two acts, which serve as introduction to the puppet-show, abound in that vivacious, satirical observation of the life about him in which Fielding excelled. He pokes fun at wellknown people, among them Henley the preacher, Cibber and Wilks; while the relations between booksellers and their hack-writers are amusingly exhibited. In the same year, 1730, appeared not only The Coffee-House Politician, a comedy in which justice Squeezum anticipates justice Thrasher in Amelia, while the principal character is obsessed with politics much like Mrs. Western in Tom Jones, but, also, Fielding’s longest-lived and most enjoyable dramatic work, the burlesque Tom Thumb. In the following year, this play, enlarged from two acts to three, was revived under the title The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great. In 1731, Fielding produced three comparatively unimportant plays; in 1732, besides writing The Covent Garden Tragedy, a burlesque of Ambrose Philips’s The Distrest Mother, and two other plays, he adapted Molière’s Le Médecin Malgré Lui under the title The Mock Doctor. The work is well done, and the version keeps fairly close to the original, though Fielding did not scruple to touch it up here and there, or, with his eye for the life about him, to introduce some personalities about Misaubin, a quack of the day, to whom he dedicated the printed play. In the next year, he adapted L’Avare, under the title The Miser; after which he remained almost silent till the beginning of 1734, when Kitty Clive, for whom he had a warm admiration and friendship, appeared in his comedy, The Intriguing Chambermaid, partly adapted from Regnard’s Le Retour Imprévu. Together with this, an enlarged and altered version of The Author’s Farce was produced. Don Quixote in England, another play (1734) (begun, as the preface tells us, at Leyden, in 1728), is chiefly remarkable for the character of squire Badger, who is very like squire Western, for the famous hunting song beginning “The dusky Night rides down the Sky,” and for parliamentary election scenes which, possibly, were in the mind of Fielding’s friend Hogarth when he designed his election prints. With the year 1735, in which were brought out a successful farce and an unsuccessful comedy, we come to a break in Fielding’s activity as a playwright. As a writer of comedy, Fielding suffered under three disabilities—inexperience of the human heart; the haste of a young man about town in urgent need of money to relieve him of duns or provide him with pleasures; and the prevalence of the decaying form of comedy inherited from Congreve. He is at his best when exhibiting the external features of the life of his time; his characterisation is neither deep nor interesting. In farce and burlesque, he was far happier. Here, his high spirits, his gift for amusing extravagance, had free play.