Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 9. Hannah More; Percy

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

§ 9. Hannah More; Percy

When Sheridan produced The Critic he was attacking a cause which had already won the day. Sentimental drama had been patronised by the most cultured circle in polite society. Since 1750, Mrs. Montagu’s salon had been teaching London that ladies could cultivate their intellect, without sacrificing their social charm, and a series of talented blue-stockings were portraying drawing-room culture in novels and plays. Mrs. Cowley was already known to the public; but the theatre did not feel the full influence of the movement till Hannah More’s Percy packed Covent garden at a time when The School for Scandal was the attraction of Drury lane. Hannah More was a woman of strong character, masculine intellect and passions, which, thwarted in life, were almost bound to find expression in literature. She had already composed The Inflexible Captive, a classical drama inspired by Addison’s Cato and Havard’s Regulus, but showing a complete ignorance of the stage, in which the sentimental passions of son, daughter and lover are called into play by the captive Regulus’s return to Rome. Through five acts, the hero resists the claims of state and family with dignified and aphoristic declamation, and even the authoress herself admitted that the play was defective in action. Three years later, Hannah More had come into contact with the leading humorists, courtiers and actors of London; and nothing proves more vividly the fascination of the Georgian theatre than that she should have chosen this as a mouthpiece for her ideas. Percy is a manifesto, and attempts to show how the ethics of refined society may be studied through the ensanguined colours of tragedy. Hannah More translated into rather intense drama the discussions which interested her own day: what duty a woman owes to her father, her husband and her own good name; how a lover should act towards a woman in distress and towards his own heart; the obligation of a husband to win his wife’s affection and his right to guard her fidelity, though it cost both of them their lives; the regard for decorum which a “person of quality” should observe, even in moments of high emotion. Such ideas had become too subtle for the conventional setting of a Roman tragedy, and Mason’s Caractacus, despite the beauty of Mrs. Hartley (as Evelina), had failed only the year before. Hannah More was well in touch with the growing taste for romanticism and was original enough to fill her problem play with the chivalry and architecture of the Middle Age. Percy is based on a twelfth century story of Eudes de Faiel, which Belloy (the author of Le Siège de Calais) had already dramatised; but the horrible episode of Raoul de Coucy’s heart was, of course, omitted. The action takes place among old-fashioned English heroes and shows how Elwina, betrothed to Percy from her childhood, has wed earl Raby at her father’s behest, but cannot return his love. Just as the earl’s suspicions are being aroused at this coldness, Percy returns with glory from the crusades and hastens to his lady, not knowing that she is married. The spectators watch the sentimental lover as he is gradually trapped by the jealous husband, while the heroine is torn between duty to her marriage vow and her unconquerable passion for the suitor of her youth. In the end, Elwina goes mad and drinks poison, while Raby slays Percy, and then, learning that his wife was chaste, kills himself. Artificial and insipid as the play now seems, its combination of emotion, action and theory was considered a revelation. Besides the most ample recognition in London, the drama was acted in Vienna, and the authoress was elected a member of the Paris and Rouen academies.

Percy shows what havoc a virtuous man may work, if he is passion’s slave. In 1779, Hannah More produced The Fatal Falsehood, to prove how love, in an unscrupulous heart, may lead to even more appalling crimes. After this effort, she abandoned the theatre and devoted her pen to the propagation of religion.

Never was there an atmosphere less genial to the tragic muse. A few attempts were made at classical imitations, such as Delap’s Royal Suppliants (1781), founded on Euripides’s Heraclidae and Philodamus (1782), by Dr. Bentley’s son based on a passage in Cicero’s In Verrem. There were some Shakespearean revivals, such as Kemble’s alterations of Coriolanus and The Tempest, both in 1789, and some genuine attempts at medieval tragedy, in Hannah More’s manner, of which the best were Jephson’s Count of Narbonne (1781) and Joanna Baillie’s De Montfort (1880). These efforts, which read like academic exercises, were the more coldly received, because the age could see its own thoughts and manners reflected, almost every night, in an endless succession of new comedies.