The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 18. Social Satire
Much more important from the artistic standpoint were the comedies proceeding by means of social satire. Here, too, we turn back to our first comedy, The Contrast, for the beginning of the type, but while we note in 1841 the production of a “cutting satire upon fashionable life” in the comedy of Saratoga Springs, which was very successful, it was not until the production of Fashion by Anna Ogden Mowatt on 24 Mawatt on 24 March, 1845, at the Park Theatre in New York that we can chronicle a social satire of any distinction. Fashion is a good-humoured satire upon the artificial qualities of society in New York, and introduces the snob who is taken in by a French barber, the merchant ruined by his wife’s extravagance, the confidential clerk who blackmails his employer, and as contrasts to these, the true-hearted farmer and his granddaughter who, by her efforts to save the daughter of the self-seeking social striver, almost loses her own lover. These are all types, to be sure, but they are made alive and the dialogue is clever. The play had a great success here and abroad, and may be said to have founded a school of playwriting which lasts to this day. Its immediate successors, however, hardly came up to the standard set by Fashion. One of the best of them, Nature’s Nobleman produced in New York in 1851, was written by Henry O. Pardey, an English actor, who laid his scenes in Saratoga, Cape May, and a farm in New York State, and established quite well a contrast between American and English types. Mrs. Bateman’s Self, E. G. Wilkins’s Young New York, Cornelius Mathews’s False Pretences; or, Both Sides of Good Society, all played in 1856, become caricature of a descending quality. Perhaps the most clever of the later comedies of social life is Americans in Paris by W. H. Hurlbert, performed in 1858.