J. M. (John Mackinnon) Robertson.

Eighteenth century literature; an Oxford miscellany online

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M. E. Hare 5

II. LADY WINCHELSEA. By Elsie Drew . . 42


Bispham ....... 56


TAGU. By Violet L. Jacquier . . .76



By J. G. Fairfax 103

VII. ENTHUSIASM. By J. E. V. Crofts . . .127


THERE is an essay of Goldsmith's, on the theatrical pro-
ductions of his time, which a writer on the Sentimental
Comedy would like to quote in eostenso. And for this
reason that this kind of comedy, which Goldsmith
described with great humour but with perfect justice in
the piece in question, is a thing exceedingly difficult to
define. Perhaps it is too near to us. We know it too well
to be able to define it. Every one can recognize it at
a glance. If you dip into a play written after 1710 or so,
and find such a passage as this :

Oh, my child ! my child ! [Embraces her, and a comic ser-
vant or trusted butler sheds manly tearsJ\

Child. All-gracious Heaven ! is it possible ! Do I em-
brace my father ?

you will know without the need of any definition that you
have struck a genuine spring of that dolorous fountain of
sham tears and sham wit La Come'die Larmoyante, The
Comedy of Sighs (that shall be changed to cries of joy in
the Fifth Act), the subject of our essay The Sentimental
Comedy invented by the great essayist Sir Richard Steele.
This is how Goldsmith describes it. He has just cited
the practice of the ancients in making tragedy deal with
the misfortunes of the great and comedy with the humours
of low life ; tragedy and comedy were never in the best
classical times mixed to make what Voltaire calls a 'trades-
man's tragedy ' :


. ' Yet no^ithst&ndkig; this weight of authority, and the
universal practice of all ages, a new species of dramatic
composition has been introduced under the name of the
Sentimental Comedy, in which the virtues of private life
are exhibited rather than the vices exposed ; and the dis-
tresses rather than the faults of mankind make our interest
in the piece.

These comedies have had of late great success, perhaps
from their novelty; and also from their flattering every
man in his favourite foible. In these plays almost all the
characters are good, and exceedingly generous; they are
lavish enough of their tin money on the stage; and
though they want humour have abundance of sentiment
and feeling. If they happen to have faults and foibles the
spectator is taught not only to pardon but to applaud them,
in consideration of the goodness of their hearts ; so that
Folly, instead of being ridiculed, is commended ; and the

"" comedy aims at touching our passions without the power
of being truly pathetic.


Goldsmith's arguments to prove that the Sentimental

Comedy is an undesirable form of entertainment are by
no means so good as his description. Omitting them, we
come to the peroration of his essay, of which the following
is a short passage :

But there is one argument in favour of Sentimental
Comedy which will keep it on the stage, in spite of all that
can be said against it. It is of all others the most easily
written. Those abilities that can hammer out a novel are
fully sufficient for the production of a Sentimental Comedy.
It is only sufficient to raise the characters a little, to deck out
the hero with a riband, or give the heroine a title ; then,
to put an insipid dialogue without character or humour
into their mouths, give them mighty good hearts and very
fine clothes, furnish a new set of scenes, make a pathetic
scene or two with a sprinkling of tender melancholy con-
versation through the whole ; and there is no doubt but
that all the ladies will cry and all the gentlemen applaud.


There we have the whole thing described a humourless,
sententious, lachrymose flattery o human nature lights
down, ' nothing low/ a gentle melancholy ; love the only
dramatic pivot ; a comedy of lay curates and hysterical
lay-curate worshippers ; Tupper and tinsel.

Of course the English drama, which sixty years before
had sparkled with the wit of the ' Restoration Dramatists '
(as they are usually called), and had been as free from
sentimentality as Miss Vivie Warren, did not arrive at this
pitch of dull absurdity all at once. Yet it is quite
astonishing with how rapid a sweep the dramatic pendulum,
if one may be permitted the metaphor, swung across from
the drama of brilliant heartlessness to the drama of insipid

This is, in brief, the history of the change. In the year
1 698 the celebrated Jeremy Collier, disgusted at the licence
of the theatre, ' convinced that nothing had gone further
in debauching the age than the stage poets and the play-
house, thought ' (as he says) ' that he could not employ his
time better than by writing against them/ He did this
in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the
English Stage. This tremendous piece of invective, impaired,
as Professor Ward says, f neither by intemperance of lan-
guage nor by any other symptom of inferior breeding/
was irresistible. The Restoration comedy, with all its wild
indecency, had been a natural and perhaps even a salutary
reaction against the Puritanism which raged in the time of
Cromwell. But a reaction, if carried too far, will cause
another reaction tending in the direction of the original
movement a counter-reaction. And this had undoubtedly
set in when Collier wrote his Short View. Expressions of
sympathy and approval reached him from many quarters ;
even King William caused a nolle protequi to be entered,


thus relieving the Non juror from all further fear of pro-
ceedings against him as a political offender. Though the
comic poets were championed by their ablest men by
Dennis, by Vanbrugh, by Dry den, and by Congreve
resistance was worse than useless. They had a bad cause
to plead, and had at no time been quite unconscious of their
offence. The counter-reaction had set in hard against them.
A habit of morality soon became ' the only wear ' ; writers
like Mrs. Centlivre became anxious to reclaim their sinners
in the last act; and in 1701 the essayist Steele, ever the
champion of decency and morality, put a play upon the
stage, in point of morals ' no improper entertainment ' to
be presented by the author of The Christian Hero to
a 'Christian commonwealth,' as he calls our country in
the preface to a later play. This was The Funeral) or Grief
a la mode, written mainly in what one would like to call
Steele's 'purely amusing ' as opposed to his ' didactic'
style. It was dedicated to Isabella Countess of Albemarle,
with a characteristic eulogy of the Countess's virtues as
a wife. A boisterous prologue, addressed mainly to Steele's
soldier friends (for our author had in 1694 enlisted in the
Duke of Ormonde's regiment of Guards), concluded with
the lines :

He knows he's numerous friends; nay, knows they'll

show it,
And for the fellow-soldier save the poet.

This was fittingly spoken by the eloquent Wilkes, and the
play proved a striking success. It has an engaging fresh-
ness about it, characteristic of Steele's best dramatic work
a kind of boyish good spirits. Even in the prologue this
is seen. Speaking of the animal and acrobatic shows
which were at the time in serious rivalry with the theatre,
the prologizer said :


Gorged with intemperate meals while here you sit,
You well may take activity for wit.

As our paper is on Steele the dramatist, and not merely
on the Sentimental Comedy, a short account must be given
of this and all his plays ; but the position of Steele in
dramatic history is a curious paradox. His best plays are
his least important, and his worst are carefully read by the
student because they so certainly represent the beginnings
of that decline of our comic drama which led eventually to
such a comedy as is exhibited in the Heir at Law when the
rather overrated Dr. Pangloss is not on the stage ; to
Honest Kenrick, the comic Irishman, who is so affected by
his mistress's doleful condition that he bursts into tears
with the sensibility of a fine nature and cries 'boo-hoo'; in
fine, to a very ' Turveydrop '-ism of sentimentality. A dis-
tinction has been drawn between Steele's two styles, his
purely amusing and his didactic veins. The didactic was
sentimental and often absurd ; but the purely amusing is
irresistibly lighthearted and merry. His first play, The
Funeral, is for the most part in the latter style. It was
written, he tells us, to clear his character from a kind of
suspicion under which it had fallen upon the publication of
The Christian Hero. This book was considered an offence
against regimental good form, so that 'from being reckoned
no undelightf ul companion ' our author, in his own words,
'was soon reckoned a disagreeable fellow/ They found
him guilty of an uncomfortable and unseasonable piety,
and felt strongly that this was a quality a soldier
could dispense with. The Funeral rehabilitated his lost
character. It has passages of quite delightful comedy,
though, like all Steele's dramatic work, it is, on the
whole, an undoubted farce. It is very little didactic
till the last Act. It is badly sentimental in places, but


cannot be called Sentimental Comedy proper. Here is the
plot of it :

Lord Brumpton, an elderly nobleman married to a young
and beautiful wife, is supposed to be dead. Really he has
had some fit or swoon, and his body-servant Trusty (one of
the earliest examples of this well-worn character on the
English stage) discovers that he is alive and apparently
none the worse. All this we learn from a conversation of
master and servant in the first act.

Trusty is anxious for his master to improve the occasion
by concealing the fact of his recovery, so that he may watch
the conduct of his supposedly bereaved wife a course
which Lord Brumpton adopts, with some misgivings, upon
Trusty's earnest representations that it is justified by the
lady's entirely hypocritical conduct towards her husband.
She has, it appears, only pretended affection for him. She
will rejoice at his death. For the rest of the play, the ac-
tion of which takes place within twenty-four hours, Lord
Brumpton remains in concealment and observes the Lady
Brumpton's conduct. She fully justifies his worst fore-
bodings. She is wild with delight at his death. Observe the
presence of the Congreve spirit of unreality, so ably explained
by Charles Lamb and so ridiculously attacked by Hazlitt
and Mr. George Meredith, her delight does not shock us
in the least. It is made the occasion for very lighthearted
comedy. She rehearses to her maid, Mistress Tattleaid, all
the villainies of her past (with her husband, of course, be-
hind the arras) ; tells how she had led him into disinherit-
ing his son by a former marriage ; how delighted she is that
her husband is really dead at last ; how charming it will be
to wear becoming black, and, after a year's seemly grief
and retirement (ha ! ha !), what an entrance she will make
at the playhouse, how every one will run after the rich


and beautiful young widow ; finally, how clever she has
been to secure the guardianship of two wards of her hus-
band's the ladies Sharlot and Harriot. The sub-plot is
concerned with the loves of these ladies, who are kept locked
up by the villainous widow her wickedness is so tremen-
dous as thoroughly to endear her to us (no one blames
Punch for beating his wife) in order that they may not
marry before she has stolen their portions. Two faithful
swains in love with Sharlot and Harriot one the disinhe-
rited son (strange how these coincidences come about !), the
other a friend of his, a Mr. Campley contrive eventually to
rescue the ladies, getting Sharlot out of the house dramatic-
ally enough, but without a great appearance of ' probability/
in Lord Brumpton's unoccupied coffin at the end of the
play. Prolonged applause. Lord Brumpton enters and
blesses the lovers, taking his son to his heart with great fer-
vour. Finally, the widow herself exposed sufficiently before
is proved to have been married to a penniless scoundrel,
one Cabinet, at some period anterior to her marriage with Lord
Brumpton. She had married the nobleman to support her
real husband (Cabinet) on whatever she could wheedle out
of her pretended husband. This state of affairs intoler-
ably forced as it is made to appear, for the audience have
had no hint of it beforehand is introduced to enable Lord
Brumpton to revoke a will made at his pretended wife's
instigation wholly in her favour, which left not a penny to
his disinherited son, the Lord Hardy. Apparently Steele
thought that while she continued to be his wife he could
not write another will. Steele's legal knowledge was con-
fined to the province of actions for debt. However, Lady
Brumpton was not a desirable wife, and this exposure of a
former marriage effects a complete riddance of her. For,
hurling at the despicable Cabinet an accusation of voluntary


cuckoldom, she flings out and the good characters heave a
sigh of relief.

All is now happiness, extremely indifferent blank verse,
and songs set by Mr. Daniel Purcell. After the songs
Lord B rump ton taking, we may suppose, the centre of
the stage makes a short speech, half of it in blank verse,
in a vein of gentle homily, and the curtain falls.

This conclusion was, it appears, not sufficiently tedious to
spoil the reception of the piece, which is till the conclusion
fresh and sprightly, delightfully innocent, and abounding
in a kind of easy wit.

Steele had a good sense of character, and he was of course
original in his treatment of the women in the piece. The
ladies S harlot and Harriot are real women, high-spirited and
frank, with a modesty that is not prudery : with such agree-
able feminine weaknesses as a shy confidence in their own
good looks, not insisted on to the extent of colouring the
whole character but just sufficiently sketched in to give a
sense of life and reality. Then the undertaker, Mr. Sable,
is an original and most amusing person. He has not been
mentioned before he has very little connexion with the
plot. Here is a passage in which he is marshalling his
mutes for a funeral :

Sable. Well, come, you that are to be mourners in this
house, put on your sad looks, and walk by me that I may
sort you. Ha, you ! a little more upon the dismal \_forming
their countenances^ ; this fellow has a good mortal look-
place him near the corpse. That wainscot face must be
a' top of the stairs ; that fellow 's almost in a fright (that
looks as if he were full of some strange misery) at the en-
trance of the hall so but I'll fix you all myself. Let's
have no laughing now on any provocation \make* faces].
Look yonder, that hale, well-looking puppy ! You ungrate-
ful scoundrel , did not I pity you, take you out of a great


man's service,, and show you the pleasure of receiving
wages ? Did not I give you ten, then fifteen, now twenty
shillings a week, to be sorrowful ? and the more I give you,
I think, the gladder you are.

And again, to Mistress Goody Trash :

I wonder, Goody Trash, you could not be more punctual,
when I told you I wanted you, and your two daughters, to
be three virgins to-night to stand in white about my Lady
Katherine Grissel's body; and you know you were pri-
vately to bring her home from the man-midwife's, where
she died in childbirth, to be buried like a maid ; but there is
nothing minded. Well, I have put off that till to-morrow ;
go and get your bag of brick-dust and your whiting.

And later, to the mutes :

Who can see such an horrid ugly phiz as that fellow's
and not be shocked, offended, and killed of all joy while he
beholds it? But we must not loiter. Ye stupid rogues, whom
I have picked out of all the rubbish of mankind, and fed
for your eminent worthlessness, attend, and know that I
speak you this moment stiff and immutable to all sense of
noise, mirth, or laughter. [Makes mouths at them as they
pass by him to bring them to a constant countenance.] So,
they are pretty well pretty well.

There is a very good scene where the widow cannot pre-
serve the appearance of distracted grief which she has as-
sumed, because some ladies who have called to sympathize
with her will talk the most fascinating scandal in an under-
tone to one another :

[Widow is on her couch; while she is raving to herself)
Tattleaid softly brings in the ladies."]

Widow. Wretched, disconsolate as I am ! Oh, welcome,
welcome, dear killing anguish ! Oh, that I could lie down
and die in my present heaviness but what how ? Nay,
my dear, dear lord, why do you look so pale, so ghastly at
me ? Wottoo, wottoo, fright thy own trembling, shivering


Tatileaia. Nay, good madam, be comforted.

[She seems inconsolable, lut later the ladies talk scandal
and she cannot lutjoin in.}

1st Lady. But, madam, don't you hear what the town
says of the jilt Flirt the men liked so much in the Park ?
Hark ye was seen with him in an hackney coach and silk
stockings key-hole his wig on the chair. \Whispers by

2nd Lady. Impudent Flirt, to be found out !

3rd Lady. But I speak it only to you.

4th Lady. Nor I but to one more. [Whispers next

5th Lady. I can't believe it ; nay, I always thought it,
madam. [Whispers the widow. ~\

Widow. Sure, 'tis impossible ! the demure, prim thing !
Sure, the world 's hypocrisy. Well, I thank the stars, what-
soever sufferings I have, I've none in reputation. I wonder
at the men ; I could never think her handsome. She has
really a good shape and complexion, but no mien ; and no
woman has the use of her beauty without mien ! Her charms
are dumb, they want utterance. But whither does dis-
traction lead me to talk of charms ?

Indeed, it would mean reading quite half the play if one
were to quote all those passages which show Steele a de-
lightful humorist of a new kind. But it is only fair to say
that there are some pages of moralizing and sentiment
which, taken together and the humorous parts excluded,
would almost justify Hazlitt's sneer about dramatized

To illustrate the sentimentality to be found even in this
first play of Steele's one more extract must be given.
Trusty, the old body-servant of Lord Brumpton, discovers
Lord Hardy, the disinherited son, in very decent lodgings,
and sentimentalizes over him. The delightful name the


French have given to their own sentimental comedy, La
Comedie Larmoyante, applies most admirably to scenes of
this kind :

rfrusty. Why, my lord, I presume to wait on your lord-
ship. My lord, you're strangely grown ; you're your father's
very picture, you're he, my lord ; you are the very man
that looked so pleased to see me look so fine in my lace
livery, to go to Court. I was his page when he was just
such another as you. He kissed me afore a great many
lords, and said I was a brave man's son, that taught him to
exercise his arms. I remember he carried me to the great
window, and bid me be sure to keep in your mother's sight
in all my finery. She was the finest young creature ; the
maids of honour hated to see her at Court. My lord then
courted my good lady. She was as kind to me on her
deathbed; she said to me, Mr. Trusty, take care of my
lord's second marriage for that child's sake. She pointed
as well as she could to you. You fell a-crying, and said
she should not die ; but she did, my lord. She left the
world, and no one like her in't. Forgive me, my honoured
master. [Weeps, runs to my lord, and hugs him.~\ I've
often carried you in these arms that grasp you ; they were
stronger then, but if I die to-morrow, you're worth five
thousand pounds by my gift 'tis what I've got in the
family, and I return it to you with thanks. But alas ! do
I live to see you want it ?

This passage won the commendation of Blackmore, him-
self a would-be reformer of the stage. His Prince Arthur
(1795) was written before Collier's Short View, but was
ridiculed on the ground of its want of merit, and made
little impression, where Collier effected a revolution.

Steele's next play, The Lying Lover, or the Ladies' Friend-
ship (1703), was to be much less witty and amusing and
much more sentimental. The Lying Lover is the first
instance of the Sentimental Comedy in England. Pro-


fessor Ward, in his History of the English Drama, gives this
reason for the infusion of sentiment with which Steele
on a hint from Gibber, who followed most carefully the
taste of a public he thoroughly understood so liberally
dosed this play and his final and very successful play,
The Conscious Lovers, of which more later. Mr. Ward

The origin of the mistake here committed is to be sought
in a distrust of the means by which comedy works, as if
they were insufficient for the production of the requisite
dramatic effect. Instead of contenting himself with
making vice and folly ridiculous, the author applies himself
to provoking a response from the emotion of pity. Such
a response is not likely to be refused to his kindly and
tender touch ; but his resort to an expedient outside the
range of the proper resources of comedy announces the
approaching virtual extinction of that species jn our
dramatic literature.

And again :

Steele, as a dramatist, came to mistake the true means
and methods of the comic drama. His own comic
genius lacked the sustained vigour which is required by the
stage; and his artistic sense was too keen altogether to
have left him unconscious of his inability to satisfy his
moral purpose by holding up to ridicule with unflagging
persistence those human vices and follies which, are the
proper subjects of comedy. He therefore called in senti-
ment to aid humour, availing himself of the reaction against
the grosser methods of provoking laughter and amusement
which had set in as part of the general reaction against the
licence of the Restoration age.

But to return to The Lying Lover. It was acted at
Drury Lane in December, 1703, and ran for six nights. It
was considered a failure, and is certainly a very dull play.
Steele said it was ' damned for its piety/ and very likely


had it been less decorous it would have pleased the public
better; yet, though this may have been a minor cause,
one hopes that the audience objected more to the horrible
blank verse passages which crop up unexpectedly when any
of the characters feels that he or she can improve the
occasion with what a certain class of religious propagan-
dists call ' a few words'. ' A few words ' with Steele means
something of this kind :

Lovemore. I can hold out no longer [throws off disguises^ ;
Lovemore still lives to adore your noble friendship, and begs
a share in't. Be not amazed ! but let me clasp you both,
who in an age as degenerate as this have such transcendent

Young Bookwit. Oh, Lovemore, Lovemore, how shall
I speak my joy at your recovery !

Then, as the occasion demands, in very blank verse :

I fail beneath the too ecstatic pleasure !
What help has human nature from its sorrows
When our relief itself is such a burden?

It is horrible to think of a public which would enjoy and
applaud this ; but theatrical audiences soon got over their
first distaste, and in a very short time would endure no new
play which was not ornamented with these curious and un-
real moralizings, couched in a language equally artificial
and unreal.

The plot of The Lying Lover is of little importance,
being taken for the most part from Corneille's Le Menteur,
which was in its turn taken from the Verdad Sospechosa of
Ruiz de Alarcon. Here it is in brief :

Latine and Bookwit are undergraduates who have left
Oxford without attempting to take any degree. They
seem to have a great deal of ready money, indeed Bookwit

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