Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 1. The Decay of the Drama and the Advance of the Actor

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XII. The Georgian Drama

§ 1. The Decay of the Drama and the Advance of the Actor

THOUGH the last forty years of the eighteenth century produced few English plays of primary importance, the period is among the most interesting in the history of the national theatre. Its study shows how complex and perishable are the conditions of dramatic excellence, and explains why one of the chief glories of the English muse sank, for at least a century, beneath the level of literature.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the decay of the drama was partly due to the advance of the actor. In the days of Betterton and Barton Booth, the best player was, in a sense, an intermediary, and the attention of spectators could be held only if characters and situations appealed directly to their understanding. With the coming of Havard, Macklin, Garrick, Mrs. Clive, Spranger Barry, Foote, Yates, Mrs. Abington and King, success no longer depended on the excellence of a play. The stage began to offer a new and non-literary attraction. It was enough for the dramatist to give a “cue for passion”; he need only serve as a collaborator, as one whose work was half finished till presented by a trained performer. O’Keeffe’s success depended so largely on Edwin’s interpretations that when the actor died the playwright was expected to fail. Colman the younger’s Eustace de St. Pierre was a mere outline till Bensley gave it life, and Cumberland’s O’Flaherty, in The West Indian, was hardly more than a hint out of which Moody, following the example of Macklin’s Sir Callaghan in Love à-la-mode, developed the stage Irishman. When older and greater plays were being performed, the public was still chiefly attracted by the novelty of the acting. Abel Drugger was enjoyed because of Weston’s byplay, and Vanbrugh’s character of Lord Foppington was almost forgotten in Woodward’s impersonation of it. True inspiration was still, of course, the best material on which the player could work, as Garrick found in performing Richard III or Macklin in his new interpretation of Shylock. But, even in the revival of old plays, the masterpieces of the Elizabethan drama were altered to suit the powers of the actor. When Hamlet was re-edited by Cibber, and Lear by Nahum Tate, playwrights must have perceived that literary talent was no longer a necessity. It became even rarer as the theatre rose in public estimation. Thanks to actors, plays had longer runs, and people paid more to see them. Those who contributed towards the production of these fashionable entertainments began to prosper, and the more dramatists enjoyed the luxuries of conventional society, the less they retained touch with the tragedy and comedy of real life. Quin was the last of the old school, and Macklin was the first to bring his own personality into his interpretations. But the conflict between classical literature and dramatic taste was undecided, till Garrick’s genius showed that gesture, pose and facial expression were so effective that even the dumb-show of ballet-pantomimes could please an audience more than old-time rhetoric.