Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 2. The Theatre in the Eighteenth Century and its Audiences

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

§ 2. The Theatre in the Eighteenth Century and its Audiences

An apparently trivial change in the arrangement of the theatre drew the drama further from literature. To give actors more space and to obviate interruptions, spectators were removed from the stage in 1762, and, as the loss of these seats would have fallen heavily on the recipient of a benefit, the auditorium was lengthened. Thus, although the “apron” still projected a few feet into the auditorium, the business of the play had no longer the advantage of taking place among onlookers. Before 1765, Drury lane was chiefly illuminated by chandeliers, though candle-footlights had already been introduced. Garrick, on returning from his continental tour, engaged the services of Barthélémon, whose violin won success for many worthless pieces, and ordered Parisian scenery and lamp-footlights from Jean Monnet. The concentration of light threw into relief the performer’s face and enabled his looks and movements to express what had formerly needed monologues and asides. When the proscenium, which had been introduced at the restoration, and footlights had completely separated the player from his audience, the performance became spectacular. Actors were now like figures in a picture, and the dramatist learnt that one of his first tasks was to manoeuvre them into poses and situations. Experience eventually taught authors how to preserve dramatic fitness amid these altered requirements; but, for several generations, the consequence was a misuse of asides, parentheses, sudden entrances, mistaken identities and other stage effects of like nature.

Despite these temptations, authors and actors might have succeeded, as at Hamburg and Weimar, in producing art without sacrificing literature, if it had not been for the public. Georgian audiences were no longer representative of the nation. The puritan prejudice against the theatre, revived in the Bible society abolitionists and the low church evangelical party, and many thoughtful men, such as the Wesleys, John Newton, Cowper, Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay, abstained on principle from an institution which preached a fictitious code of honour and was considered the favourite resort of the irreligious. Many more stayed away because the habits of eighteenth century England were essentially domestic. It was an age of household furniture, tea-drinking and sensibility. Men and women spent evenings at home discussing ethics, writing long, intimate letters or testing each other’s gift of sentimental conversation. When the inevitable reaction came, it led people from the playhouse towards nature and the open air.

If the drama had few charms for more thoughtful and soberminded citizens, it irresistibly attracted the beau monde. Lovers of social display, who were gratified by the “jubilee-masquerade” at Ranelagh and by the Richmond fireworks, had begun to look for the same kind of excitement in the theatre. As performances were generally restricted to two or three houses, theatregoers enjoyed that sense of exclusiveness and monopoly which is dear to leaders of society. Soon, it became a social distinction to meet and be seen at these assemblies, till Hannah More admits that one of the chief pleasures was “the show of the Spectators.” People went early to get seats when it was known that the Gunnings would be among the audience, and, in the sixties, the popularity of the royal family could be gauged by the warmth of their reception at the theatre. Besides, the enterprise of the great actor-managers made these entertainments one of the principal town topics which people of fashion could not afford to ignore. Not to have judged Garrick, Macklin, Foote, Lewis, Mrs. Siddons or Kemble in their latest rôle, not to have sat as arbiter over the contending merits of Drury lane and Covent garden, was a mark of provincialism. While the leisured classes bestowed their patronage, they also imposed their prejudices and traditions. The desire to cultivate self-respect and courtesy, which is noticeable so far back as the revolution, had gradually grown, during the eighteenth century, into a meticulous observance of outward forms. Every man of breeding was expected to be a drawing-room diplomatist, who could win his way by his personality and conversation. Together with the cult of social conformity, there had gradually developed such a horror of vulgarity that any display of natural feelings was considered ungentlemanly. Lord Chesterfield reminds his son that to laugh aloud was bad manners, and that to quote an old-fashioned proverb was to betray familiarity with coachmen. The nineteenth century horror of indelicacy or coarseness now begins to appear. Johnson reproved Hannah More for reading Tom Jones, some of the bluestockings rejected Tristram Shandy, Bowdler expurgated Shakespeare and Gibbon. A class dominated by such ideals might excel in many provinces of literature, from oratory to letter-writing; but, when the glamour of social distinction drew them to the theatre, their taste proved too artificial for the appreciation of real tragedy and comedy. Good acting always won their favour; but, even Shakespeare had partially to be rewritten for them by Thompson, Garrick and Kemble. The older school still preferred comedies full of the humorous vagaries and witty conversations of their own rather trivial lives, or tragedies which flattered their sense of literary propriety by observing the unities, amidst arid rhetoric and blank verse. By the second half of the century, a more serious and emotional atmosphere began to predominate in high society. This newer phase is something more than a continuation of the ideals reflected in Steele’s sentimental comedies. People did not abate one jot of their respect for gentility; but they were anxious to take themselves and the theatre more seriously. They rigidly observed their father’s and grandfather’s cult of self-possession; but they also affected strong and sensitive passions. Their ideal was to repress powerful emotions beneath a refined, or even mincing, manner, till the breaking point was reached in floods of tears or in a swoon. As contact with the hard and varied realities of life was still considered to such a degree ill-bred that even the bailiff’s scene in The Good-Natur’d Man was censured, people had to look to domestic incidents for pathos and passion. A look, a gesture, or a silence was, for them, charged with sentiment. They waxed tearful or melancholy over the spectacle of a woman preserving her inbred elegance under persecution and insult. They loved to contemplate the tenderness of paternal or filial instinct, and dramatists were wont to introduce sudden recognitions between a parent and a long-lost child, in order to give an emotional turn to their plays. Their dramatic ideas centred in the morality of the drawing-room or the domestic circle. Even wickedness (except when the exigencies of the plot required a melodramatic villain) was a temporary lodger in a conscience-stricken breast; even humour was appreciated only when a rugged but domesticated character, such as a Scottish servant, almost travestied virtue by an uncouth exterior.

Such was the class which gave the theatre its tone. But the spectators who packed Drury lane and Covent garden were not entirely composed of sentimentalists. The Mohawks, whom Swift feared and Steele censured, had their descendants under George III. Bullies in the pit, like footmen in the gallery, seemed to have followed occupants of the boxes in matters of dramatic taste; but they still regarded actors as lawful victims of their arrogance and insolence. On one occasion, they demanded that Moody should beg their pardon on his knees for some imagined disrespect, and such was their tyranny that, when Sheridan put Macbeth on the stage, he feared a riot because Mrs. Siddons omitted the candle which their favourite Mrs. Pritchard always carried in the sleep-walking scene. The would-be playwright had other discouragements to face besides dependence on an over-sensitive, narrow-minded and intolerant public. Before the end of the century, plays sometimes enjoyed a run of from twenty to sixty nights, and, as there were not more than two theatres open at the same time, the unknown author had often to suffer humiliations and to descend to intrigues before his work could be accepted. Yet, neither the generation of Walpole nor that of Burke lacked students of human nature possessed of creative genius, who, like Goldsmith and Sheridan, might possibly have surmounted all these difficulties if a more direct path to the heart of the nation had not already been found.

The drama’s decline was the novel’s opportunity. Ever since the days of Lyly and Greene, prose fiction had become a possible rival of the theatre; but the Elizabethan public was too gregarious, and had inherited too deep a love of spectacle, to care to see life through the unsociable medium of a book. After the revolution, the influence of the theatre waned; but the middle class was making its first acquaintance with culture, and, like all beginners, required its lessons in a dogmatic, unequivocal form, such as essays, satires and treatises. It was not till the middle of the century that people seemed to have mastered the principles of social ethics and began to enquire how those ideas applied to the complex tangle of character and destiny. No doubt, the drama, under favourable conditions, could have satisfied this curiosity. Figaro is as effective as Roderick Random, and Minna von Barnhelm shows what the stage could have made of The History of Amelia. But the novel was better adapted to the speculations of the time. The drama deals with crises in the lives of its chief characters and, thus, is suited to an age of action or of transition, when people are interested in the clash between old traditions and new ideas. In the novel, life is treated like a piece of complex machinery, to be pulled to pieces, carefully examined and then patiently put together again. Thus, the novel is best adapted to a generation which has already made up its mind about the framework of society, and is now puzzling over the accidents of birth and temperament which prevent many individuals from fitting into the scheme. But, though tragedy and comedy decayed, the theatre did not. During the last forty years of the eighteenth century, a long succession of talented actors, from Macklin and Foote to Kemble and Quick, revealed fresh sources of emotion and raised their calling to an honourable profession. And, if few Georgian plays can rank as literature, they yet provide an illuminating commentary on public sentiment and theatrical art.

In the sixties, amid musical entertainments such as Bicker-staff’s Padlock, which ran for fifty-three nights, adaptations from Metastasio and from Voltaire and some fustian tragedies full of duels and suicides, a taste for sentimental, or, as it was then called, genteel, comedy prevailed. Even Goldsmith’s The Good-Natur’d Man (1767) did not bring back the public taste to “nature and humour in whatever walks of life they were most conspicuous.” At Drury lane, Kelly, a few days previously, had produced False Delicacy, which condensed into a clear-cut situation the doubts and heart-searchings of the fashionable world. Lady Betty Lambton refuses the hand of her beloved Lord Winworth out of a false sense of delicacy and then finds herself pledged to further his courtship with Miss Marchmont. Miss Marchmont is secretly in love with Sidney, but feels bound to encourage Winworth’s advances, because she is under many obligations to his seconder Lady Betty. Of course, there is an underplot, with two comic characters (Cecil and Mrs. Harley); but the true spirit of the comedy is found in the scene where Lady Lambton and Miss Marchmont are at last induced to strip off the veneer of gentility and disclose their real sentiments. Other plays followed the same tone, such as Mrs. Griffith’s School for Rakes (1769), in which Lord Eustace, after abandoning the compromised Harriet Mountfort for a marriage of convenience, is brought back by Frampton’s influence to a sense of duty; or Kelly’s School for Wives (1773), in which the farcical spectacle of a man who loves his handsome wife, and yet pays court to all other women of his circle, is tempered by scenes of domestic emotion. But the dramatist who most conspicuously made his mark in this decade is Richard Cumberland.