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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

§ 11. General Burgoyne: The Heiress

The most remarkable playwright of this decade is general Burgoyne. The author of The Maid of the Oaks, on returning from America, had resumed his former avocation, and, after writing an opera in 1780, produced, in 1786, The Heiress, which won a fortune and was preferred by some critics to The School for Scandal. The play, which was partly founded on Diderot’s Père de Famille and on Mrs. Lennox’s The Sister (1769), has the unusual merit of combining the features of a comedy of manners with those of a comedy of pathos. In the first half, differences of breeding and caste are sketched with the precision of genuine comedy. The native grace and suavity of hereditary gentry are skilfully portrayed, especially in the scene where Clifford woos the charming Lady Emily, his friend Lord Gayville’s sister, over a game of chess; while the affectations of the vulgar rich are satirised in the scenes where old Alscrip suffers the inconveniences of fashion and his daughter expatiates insufferably on her imagined conquests in the polite world. The two households afford a pleasing study in social contrasts, which reach their climax when Lady Emily and Miss Alscrip are brought together; and the scene shifts naturally from one side to the other, since Lord Gayville is to marry Miss Alscrip for her money. The pathetic interest centres in Miss Alton. Lord Gayville falls in love with Miss Alton in the streets, does not know who she is, traces her to her obscure lodging, like Belcour in The West Indian, and presses his courtship so eagerly that, to escape persecution, she enters service as Miss Alscrip’s companion. It is easy to foresee what humiliations her self-respect will suffer among these purse-proud plebeians, until she is unexpectedly discovered to be Clifford’s long-lost sister, and the detection of a flaw in a will transfers the Alscrip fortune to her hands. Though infinitely inferior to Sheridan’s masterpiece in construction and brilliance of dialogue, The Heiress exercised a stronger influence. It demonstrated how effectively characters could be contrasted by grouping them in two opposing parties; it introduced a new type of snob, not only in the person of old Alscrip but in the two cleverly conceived stage characters, Mr. and Mrs. Blandish, who ingratiate themselves into both circles by abject flattery; it showed what use could be made of the odious female as a foil to the virtues of the heroine whom she scorns, and it made popular an atmosphere of legal chicanery, forged wills and incriminating documents, which, henceforth, was taken over by many subsequent plays. Though Burgoyne found many imitators of his technique, The Heiress is one of the last productions of the eighteenth century that reflected new lights on human nature, thus retaining the spirit of comedy.

Yet another change was now coming over the British theatre. The ideas of Condorcet, William Godwin and Tom Paine were in the air, and, when the public went to the play-house, if they did not wish to be amused by operas and pantomimes, they were anxious to see these new enthusiasms on the stage. Themes were now looked for such as the rights of man, the dignity of humble life, the triumph of nature over artificial civilisation, the poetry of the country and other tenets of the growing romantic movement. Had these notions really stirred all classes, the conflict between old and new might, conceivably, have inspired a new and vigorous series of comedies. But the theatre-going public never thought of questioning the established order of the eighteenth century. These new ideas were, for them, an abstract speculation, quite distinct from their own traditions and conventionalities. Plays which now found favour necessarily ceased to be comedies and became either dramatised pamphlets or day-dreams of the world set right. A public of this sort offered easy opportunities to any sentimentalist familiar with the stage; and, during the last twenty years of the century, Holcroft, Mrs. Inchbald, Colman the younger and Morton made reputations by adapting to the technique of the theatre the unsubstantial Utopias of everyday life.