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

IV. The Drama and the Stage

§ 8. Lillo and Prose Domestic Tragedy: George Barnwell

In The London Merchant, or The History of George Barnwell (1731), George Lillo introduced prose domestic tragedy. Brought up to his father’s trade of jeweller in the city of London, Lillo became the dramatist of domestic life. His first theatrical venture was an insignificant ballad-opera, Silvia, or The Country Burial (1730). The production at Drury lane theatre, on 22 June, 1731, of The London Merchant, or The History of George Barnwell, is, however, an important landmark in English dramatic history. Domestic tragedy, in a sense, was no novelty on the English stage. Elizabethan dramas such as Arden of Feversham, A Yorkshire Tragedy and A Woman Killed with Kindness, forego the usual noble preferences of tragedy. Otway, Southerne and Rowe found that pathos was not dependent upon rank and title. The prologue to Rowe’s Fair Penitent, indeed, deliberately announces the creed which Lillo followed. Yet the father of the fair Calista is a Genoese nobleman and her lover is a young lord. Jane Shore tells the ruin of a woman of lower class; but it is a great noble who compasses her downfall. Otway’s Orphan, like most of the domestic tragedies that precede Lillo’s, seems rather to neglect the aristocratic tone of tragedy than to magnify its democratic character.

With Lillo, domestic tragedy becomes positively and insistently familiar. He deliberately dramatises ordinary commercial life, and teaches the importance of the commonplace. The prologue to George Barnwell dwells on the fact that the tragic muse, after moving in the very highest social spheres, has “upon our stage” been sometimes seen, nor without applause,

  • in a humbler dress—
  • Great only in distress. When she complains
  • In Southern’s, Rowe’s, or Otway’s moving strains,
  • The brilliant drops that fall from each bright eye
  • The absent pomp with brighter jems supply.
  • Forgive us then, if we attempt to show,
  • In artless strains, a tale of private woe,
  • A London ’Prentice ruin’d is our theme.