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History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Early English 18th

< History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now

Though weaker than the best of Restoration comedies, early 18th century British comedy features some strong works.


John GayEdit

John Gay wrote one of the wittiest comedies of the 18th century, "The beggar's opera". Portrait of the author by an unknown artist

John Gay (1685-1732) wrote one of the best comedies of the period, "The beggar's opera" (1728). Gay offers a rough satire of robbers and law agents secretly protecting robbers and profiting by their robberies. To Knight, 1962), the play “celebrates a union between merriment and horror” (p 175). Thievery is self-justified “We are for the just partition of the world, for every man hath a right to enjoy life,” says Ben Budge, one of Macheath’s henchmen.

"The beggar's opera"Edit

Polly and Lucy beg for Macheath's life. Painting by William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Time: 1720s. Place: London, England.

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Peachum is at the same time head of organized crime and one who profits from bribes when criminals are caught. When Mrs Peachum informs him of a possible love-match between the leader of a band of robbers, Captain Macheath, and his daughter, Polly, he is alarmed. "Gamesters and highwaymen are generally very good to their whores, but they are very devils to their wives," he says. Polly tries to reassure him, but is interrupted by Mrs Peachum, who has discovered she is already married to Macheath. "Can you support the expense of a husband, hussy, in gaming, drinking, and whoring?" she asks. The parents decide to arrange for Macheath's capture and execution by the law, but Polly discovers the plan and warns Macheath that her father is preparing evidence against him. To counter this, he proposes a plan to his band of outlaws. "Make him believe I have quitted the gang, which I can never do but with life," he suggests. "At our private quarters I will continue to meet you. A week or so will probably reconcile us." However, one of his mistresses, Jenny Diver, jealous of Polly, helps Peachum capture him. "You must now, sir, take your leave of the ladies," Peachum says laconically. "And, if they have a mind to make you a visit, they will be sure to find you at home." At Newgate prison, Lucy Lockit, daughter of the jailor and pregnant with Macheath's seed, rails against him. "How can you look me in the face after what hath passed between us?" she asks him. "See here, perfidious wretch, how I am forced to bear about the load of infamy you have laid upon me! Oh, Macheath, thou hast robbed me of my quiet. To see thee tortured would give me pleasure." When he denies being married to Polly, she softens. Meanwhile, Lockit and Peachum agree to go halves in his execution. Lockit declares to his daughter: "Look ye, there is no saving him. So I think you must even do like other widows- buy yourself weeds and be cheerful." But Lucy refuses until interrupted by Polly's arrival, whose bad timing Macheath curses. Both women rage and complain: Polly: "Oh, how I am troubled!" Lucy: "Bamboozled and bit!" then turn against each other. Peachum takes his daughter away while Lucy steals her father's keys, permitting Macheath to escape, which disappoints the father. "If you would not be looked upon as a fool, you should never do anything but upon the foot of interest. Those that act otherwise are their own bubbles," he says to her. "You shall fast and mortify yourself into reason, with now and then a little handsome discipline to bring you to your senses." Lucy intends to do more: poison Polly, but is unable to. Both women are sad to see Macheath recaptured. To console his daughter, Lockit says: "Macheath’s time is come, Lucy. We know our own affairs; therefore, let us have no more whimpering or whining," as does Peachum to his: "Set your heart at rest, Polly. Your husband is to die today." In the condemned hold, both women mourn for him, but are abashed when seeing four more women appear with babes in arms, all Macheath's, so that he now prefers to be executed than face them all. But because the day of execution falls on a holiday, he is reprieved and reunited with Polly.

George FarquharEdit

George Farquhar described the plots of master and servant to obtain a wife and money. Portrait of the author by an unknown artist

George Farquhar (1677-1707) achieved comic brilliance with "The beaux' stratagem" (1707). Farquhar offers sparkling wit in a manner reminiscent of Etheredge. Farquhar also wrote three other comedies: "The constant couple" (1699), "The twin rivals" (1702), and "The recruiting officer" (1706). In "The constant couple", Lady Lurewell loved Captain Standard in her youth but, being frustrated of her design of marrying him, acquires a hatred of all men until she is reunited with him. Dobrée (1924) approves Hazzlitt's view on Farquhar: "'He makes us laugh from pleasure oftener than from malice,' Hazlitt wrote. There is a constant ebullition of gay, laughing invention, cordial good-humour, and fine animal spirits in his writings. It is for that we should go to Farquhar. If we search for a poet, for a profound critic of life, for a close thinker of the Restoration type, or for a finished artist, we shall not find him. To approach him for a torrent of semi-nonsensical amusement, mingled with that clear logic which also is the Irishman's heritage, and to ask no more, is to obtain a refreshing release from the conditioned social universe in which we are forced to live."

"The beaux' stratagem"Edit

Aimwell's hand is held by the kindly Dorinda. Drawing of the 1736 edition of "The beaux' stratagem"

Time: 1700s. Place: Lichfield, England.

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Alternating between master and servant from town to town, Aimwell and Archer, fortune-hunters, arrive in Lichfield. Mrs Sullen complains to her sister-in-law, Dorinda, of her husband's ill treatment, often arriving drunk at four in the morning and sullen all day. To Mrs Sullen: "there’s no form of prayer in the liturgy against bad husbands." Though her dowry brought him 10,000 pounds, her husband is "a sad brute". Perhaps she can make him jealous with Count Bellair. Gibbet, seemingly an officer-of-the-law but in reality a robber, speaks to the innkeeper, Boniface, who reveals that he may have detected criminals in the house. When asked how he could guess, Boniface answers: "Why, the one is gone to church," to which Gibbet retorts: "That’s suspicious, I must confess." Archer woos Boniface's daughter, Cherry, who suggests that they marry. She says she will bring him 2,000 pounds, actually 200 pounds entrusted to her by Gibbet. At church, on seeing Dorinda, Aimwell "read her thousands in her looks, she looked like Ceres in her harvest-" Mrs Sullen and Dorinda approach Archer to learn more about Aimwell, then Mrs Sullen arranges to have her husband overhear when Count Bellair decides to seduce her. To Count Bellair she is "a prisoner of war". As Bellair gets bolder, Squire Sullen advances with drawn sword while his wife draws a pistol, informing her husband that all this was done for the benefit of making him jealous. Meanwhile, Archer calls on Lady Bountiful, mother to Mrs Sullen, to help Aimwell, pretending to have been taken ill near the gate of her house. Aimwell is brought in, helped by Dorinda, whose hand is pressed hard, which Lady Bountiful ascribes to "the violence of his convulsion-" Aimwell courts Dorinda so that she begins to daydream: "if I marry my Lord Aimwell, there will be title, place, and precedence, the park, the play, and the drawing-room, splendour, equipage, noise, and flambeaux.— Hey, my Lady Aimwell’s servants there!— Lights, lights to the stairs!— My Lady Aimwell’s coach put forward!— Stand by, make room for her ladyship!— Are not these things moving?" to which Mrs Sullen is moved to weep. That night, Archer comes out of her closet and takes her by the hand, but she is unable to fulfill his wishes, declaring: "I am a woman without my sex." Instead, she cries out. Scrub, her servant, comes in, shouting loudly that thieves have entered the house, whereby she now clings to Archer for protection. When Gibbet enters, he is taken prisoner by Archer, who with Aimwell rescues Lady Bountiful and Dorinda from Gibbet's henchmen. Archer presses Mrs Sullen for his reward but is interrupted by the arrival of Mrs Sullen's brother, Charles. Meanwhile, Aimwell is about to carry off Dorinda but feels constrained by her goodness to admit he is "no lord, but a poor, needy man". Not so, for Charles brings word that Aimwell's brother is dead, and he the lord of a large estate. For his part, Archer obtains half of his wife's fortune and a letter from Cherry stating that her father, in league with the house-thieves, has escaped, but not before she secured his money and more. For his part, Charles proposes a divorce for his sister and husband, which they agree on, with Sullen losing her fortune at the hands of Archer, who delivers his stolen papers to Bellair.

Henry FieldingEdit

Henry Fielding satirized the modern husband who cashes in on his wife's infidelities and also satirized heroic tragedy in the form of a diminutive warrior successful in military exploits

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) wrote two comedies of note: "The modern husband" (1732) and "Tom Thumb the great" (1731).

"The modern husband"Edit

Time: 1730s. Place: London, England.

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To extort money from him, Modern has long permitted his wife, Hillaria, to sleep with Lord Richly, but since the wealthy man's passion has diminished, he proposes to plant witnesses to their adultery and thereby recover even more money. She refuses because this would ruin her reputation. Instead, she requests 100 pounds from her second lover, Bellamant, ill at ease at being forced to ask his wife for that exact amount he gave her on the previous day. Their talk is interrupted by the arrival of Richly's nephew, Gaywit, in love with the Bellamants' daughter, Emilia, though obligated by the settlement of his uncle's estate to marry his daughter, Charlotte, who shows no interest in him and is courted by the Bellamants' son, a captain in the army. Even after obtaining Bellamant's note, Hillaria is forced to accept Richly's offer of helping him obtain a new mistress: Bellamant's wife. Richly wins the 100 pound note from Hillaria at cards but gives it by design to Mrs Bellamant when he deliberately loses at cards with her. When Bellamant aks his wife for more money, he recognizes the 100 pound note and wonders how it could have returned in her hands. Intent on ruining his wife's reputation to escape with him from their respective spouses and at the same time help out Richly's purpose, Hillaria suggests to Bellamant that she obtained the note from Richly. Struck by strong feelings of jealousy, Bellamant agrees to Hillaria's proposal of witnessing in secret a meeting between the two supposed lovers. However, Hillaria and Bellamant are surprised together by Modern who rages in the presence of Mrs Bellamant and Richly, the latter quickly escaping from this embarassment. Filled with remorse, Bellamant admits to his wife he committed adultery with Hillaria. Despite her grief, Mrs Bellamant forgives her husband, who promptly goes over to Richly's house to warn him never to approach his wife again. Gaywit follows this unpleasant visit by asking his uncle for his consent to marry Emilia, which he obtains and she accepts. Meanwhile, Charlotte pretends not to consider seriously Captain Bellamant's proposal of marriage, but quickly changes her mind when he pretends to be interested in another woman. Abandoned by her two lovers, Hillaria attempts to keep her third, Gaywit, but he repudiates her in front of the Bellamant family to force her away to the country. "Let us henceforth be one family," Gaywit proclaims to the Bellamants and Charlotte, "and have no other contest but to outvie in love."

"Tom Thumb the great"Edit

Tom Thumb's diminutive stature is no obstacle to heroic exploits. Frontispice by William Hogarth (1697-1764). London: Harrison and Co., 1731

Time: Prehistoric England. Place: England.

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King Arthur's court celebrates Tom Thumb's victory over the giants and their captive queen, Glumdalca. When the queen on the victorious side, Dollallolla, learns that Glumdalca was married to twenty men, she is envious. "O happy state of gigantism," she cries, "where husbands/Like mushrooms grow, whilst hapless we are forced/To be content- nay, happy thought with one." The king asks Tom what is his wish as a reward for such prowess. He replies he wants to marry his daughter, Huncamunca. Although finding the request "prodigiously bold", the king accepts. Loving Tom for herself, Dollallolla is jealous of her own daughter. She encourages Lord Glizzle, himself in love with Huncamunca, to foment a rebellion. While Tom walks in the streets with Noodle, a courtier and friend, they are interrupted by a bailiff and his follower who arrests Noodle for ignoring a tailor's dept. An angry Tom kills both bailiff and follower. To know the state of Huncamunca's heart, Grizzle appears before her as a suitor. He learns the worst possible news, that the princess is enthralled by Tom Thumb's person. She confirms this to Tom's face, despite Glumdalca's attempts to attract him to her. Meanwhile, King Arthur also suffers in the throes of love. He loves Glumdalca and does not know what to do. Despite Grizzle's pleas, Huncamunca marries Tom. But on next seeing Grizzle, she wavers. "A maid like me heaven formed at least for two," she asserts. "I married him and now I'll marry you." But Grizzle refuses to share his love with Tom and so initiates rebellion in the kingdom. At court, a ghost appears in the shape of Tom's father, Gaffer, warning the king of the impending civil war and that his son will be swallowed by a red cow. Arthur's hope lies in Tom's arm. "In peace and safety we secure may stay," he declares, "while to his arm we trust the bloody fray." "He is indeed a helmet to us all," agrees his queen. A mighty battle ensues with thunder and lightning, Tom as usual supremely victorious. The elated king opens the prisons, but after learning from Noodle that Tom has been swallowed by a red cow, he shuts them again. The disappointed queen kills Noodle and is herself killed by Noodle's lover. A general melee ensues. Huncamunca kills her mother's murderer but is killed by an envious courtier, killed in turn by a jealous maid of honor, herself killed by the king, who ends the slaughter by killing himself.

Richard SteeleEdit

Richard Steele described the confusions arising from pre-arranged marriages. Portrait of the author by Jonathan Richardson (1665-1745)

Another Irish-born dramatist, Richard Steele (1672-1729), wrote "The conscious lovers" (1722), based on Terence’s “The girl from Andros” (166 BC). Relative to the others named above, Steele's approach is softer and at times more sentimental, but contains clever wit. “The tender husband” comprises a cast of influential characters. Humphry is the prototype of Goldsmith’s Lumpkin in “She stoops to conquer” and Biddy to Sheridan’s Lydia Languish in “The rivals” (Bateson, 1963, p 52). According to Bateson (1963) considers the scene whereby Clerimont surprises his wife “unsavory in tone and makes unpleasant reading”, a squeamish view of marital relations.

"The conscious lovers"Edit

Time: 1720s. Place: London, England.

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Sir John Bevil has arranged for his son to marry Lucinda, daughter of a wealthy merchant, Sealand, but neither party wish to marry the other. Bevil Junior loves another, Indiana, his father's ward, but has not yet revealed his love to her in deference to his father's wish, who saved this woman from the clutches of the brother of a pirate who had kidnapped her at sea. Lucinda is loved by Myrtle, glad about Bevil Junior's promise of helping him marry her. Bevil Junior suggests that Myrtle disguise himself as a lawyer to slow down or confound Sealand's design to marry his daughter, which he readily accepts. Though loving Bevil Junior, Indiana is wholly unable to find out whether he loves her. Meanwhile, Lucinda's mother has in mind another match for her, her wealthy cousin, Cimberton, whom Lucinda abhors. To her disgust, he eyes her body with approval, lauding "the vermilion of her lips", "the pant of her bosom", "her forward chest", to which she exclaims: "The grave, easy impudence of him!" and "The familiar, learned, unseasonable puppy!" The disguised Myrtle is successful in impeding the progress of Mrs Sealand's unwelcome plan. But he is unhappy on discovering that Bevil Junior has been corresponding with Lucinda, meant to secure their agreement in not marrying. Deeply suspicious, he challenges his friend to a duel until finding out the truth. Still worried, he dons a second disguise as Cimberton's cousin, and is introduced as such to Mrs Sealand, though revealing his true self to Lucinda. Meanwhile, curious to meet Bevil Junior's charge, Sealand visits Indiana, who tells her story, in particular her frustrations in regard to her protector's ambivalence towards her. "What have I to do but sigh, and weep, to rave, run wild, a lunatic in chains, or, hid in darkness, mutter in distracted starts and broken accents my strange, strange story!"she exclaims. Sealand is stunned to discover that she is his daughter from a previous marriage, captured along with his wife by a pirate at sea. As a result, he asks his sister to run at once to young Bevil. "Tell him I have now a daughter to bestow which he no longer will decline, that this day he still shall be a bridegroom, nor shall a fortune, the merit which his father seeks, be wanting," he promises. When Cimberton discovers that only half of Sealand's dowry is available, he rejects Lucinda, now free to marry Myrtle.

“The tender husband”Edit

Time: 1700s. Place: London, England.

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Sir Henry Gubbin agrees to marry his son, Humphry, to a fine heiress, Tipkin’s daughter, Biddy. But Humphry is unwilling, all the more because the two are cousins, and so is she, considering him no more than a country booby. Also unwilling that this marriage plan succeed is Clerimont, who promises Pounce, a lawyer, one thousand pounds to favor instead Biddy’s marriage to his younger brother, a lazy retired captain eager to marry wealth. As their family lawyer, Pounce introduces Captain Clerimont to Biddy and her aunt, Barsheba. While the aunt mistakenly thinks that Pounce is courting her, the captain succeeds in flattering Biddy’s taste for romance with choice phrases. Clerimont’s mistress and spy to his wife’s extravagant spending, Fainlove, disguised as a man, promises to introduce a sister, in truth her own person, to a Humpry eager to counteract his detested father. When Humphry first meets Biddy, she sneers at the apparent “wild man”. “What wood were you taken in?” she asks. “How long have you been caught?” Yet she likes the “ungentle forester” much better after he reveals his intention of finding a reason to rid themselves of each other. The occasion is propitious, for Barsheba presents a painter for the prospective bride’s portrait, the disguised captain, whom Biddy recognizes by his voice. When the aunt leaves the room a moment, Humphry obliges by doing the same and so favors the budding romance as well as providing a coach so that the couple may elope. Meanwhile, Fainlove hands over to Clerimont a compromising letter written to herself from his wife. To trap his wife, Clerimont bursts inside her chamber with a drawn sword pretending to challenge Fainlove while the latter draws his. When she defends Fainlove, Clerimont shows her letter, at sight of which she swoons. The tender husband then praises her servant, Jenny, for her part in obtaining the letter, which prompts Mrs Clerimont to chase her away and promise to amend. To belittle his father, Humphry presents Fainlove as his wife, at which Grubbin beats and chases them out of the room but is then reconciled to the couple after being told she has money.

Susanna CentlivreEdit

Susanna Centlivre described the difficulties encountered by a man to satisfy four guardians of the woman he wants to marry. 18th century engraving of the author from a print

Irish-born Susanna Centlivre (1670-1723) reached her peak with "A bold stroke for a wife" (1718).

"A bold stroke for a wife"Edit

Fainwell must pretend to be four different suitors to satisfy four guardians of the woman he loves. Drawing by William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Time: 1710s. Place: London, England.

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Colonel Feignwell loves Anne Lovely, whose father left her 30,000 pounds in the charge of four guardians, to spend three months of the year with each. Anne chafes at her Quaker dress imposed on by Obadiah Prim and his wife, Sarah. Anne wants to marry the colonel but without relinquishing the 30,000 pounds, so that Feignwell must somehow please all four. He meets Philip Modelove, the "beau guardian", in a public park, and, to please his taste, feigns to be a fashionable gentleman of French extraction steeped in French manners. Modelove is impressed to the extent of promising him access to Anne, at present under the charge of the Prims. But when Modelove presents his candidate to Anne, she does not recognize her lover in his unfamiliar clothes. "Heaven preserve me from the formal and the fantasic fool," she exclaims. When he tries to slip her a letter of explanation, it drops and is discovered by Prim, but, on recognizing Feignwell, she quickly takes it and tears it up in pretended anger. "Thy garb savoreth too much of the vanity of the age for my approbation," Prim announces to Feignwell. The two other guardians arrive on Modelove's summons: Tradelove and Periwinkle, the first a broker addicted to trade and the second a gentleman addicted to antiquities, neither of whom liking Feignwell in his present disguise. In no way discouraged, Feignwell next dons an antique disguise to please Periwinkle's taste, pretending to possess ancient objects of all kinds, including a bottle carrying "part of those waves which bore Cleopatra's vessel when she sailed to meet Mark Antony" and a belt that carries the bearer across the world and makes him invisible. When Periwinkle puts it on, he and the landlord helping in the plot pretend he truly is invisible. Feignwell next dons the belt and drops through a trap-door when Periwinkle's back is turned while continuing to speak with him. He specifies that a sage in Cairo told him that he would benefit humankind by yielding the belt to the first man he met among four in charge of a woman. However, the cheat is discovered when a tailor walks in and speaks out Feignwell's name. To console him, his friend, Freeman, devises a second plot. Freeman tells Periwinkle his uncle is dying, a lie to make him believe he is near to becoming his heir. Meanwhile, disguised a Dutch merchant, Feignwell meets Tradelove who has been told by Freeman false information on the raising of a siege by the Spaniards. Based on this knowledge, Tradelove recklessly buys expensive stock and bets with the supposed merchant that the news is true. When the news is discovered to be false, Freeman goes over to Tradelove pretending to have lost his money, too. Freeman proposes that the merchant may be willing to forget the debt if Tradelove consents to have his ward marry him. Feignwell next disguises himself as the steward of Periwinkle's supposedly dead uncle, showing him a forged document in which he is named the heir, with a request to renew the steward's lease on a farm. Periwinkle signs his agreement. Having three of the four disposed of, Feignwell then disguises himself as a Quaker, Simon Pure, visits the Prims on the recommendation of friends of the sect. He convinces the Prims that he has converted Anne to their cause. The couple pretend to be inspired by religion so that the Prims readily agree to their marriage. The real Simon Pure arrives too late with witnesses of his true identity to prevent the marriage.

Joseph AddisonEdit

Like Shakespeare, Joseph Addison delved into ancient Roman history to write one of the best tragedies of the 18th century. Portrait of the author by Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723)

Tragedy in the early 18th century is capably represented by Joseph Addison's (1672-1719) "Cato" (1713), based on the life of Cato the Younger (95-46 BC), Stoic philosopher and political opponent of Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). Early critics were quick to compare this play with Shakespeare's roman plays. According to Downer (1950), “the language of the play is cold, elegant, and florid. Each act ends with a passion and a simile.” (p 263)


Cato's suicide depicted by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), 1646

Time: 1st century BC. Place: Rome, Italy.

Text at,_a_Tragedy

After defeating Pompey's army at Pharsalia, Julius Caesar arrives in Rome as a conqueror, but finds resistance in Cato the Younger, who recommends to Caesar's messenger: "Bid him disband his legions,/Restore the commonwealth to liberty,/Submit his actions to the public censure,/And stand the judgment of a Roman senate." The Numidian prince, Juba, once conquered by Caesar, proposes to Cato to arm Numidia in defense of the Roman senate, to which he responds: "And canst thou think/Cato will fly before the sword of Caesar?" Hoping to obtain from Caesar the hand of Cato's daughter, Marcia, in marriage, Sempronius encourages his troops to rebel against Cato, fortified by Syphax' Numidian troops. Meanwhile, Cato's sons, Marcus and Portius, are rivals for the same woman, Lucia. Unconscious of his brother's feelings, Marcus asks him to speak to her on his behalf, but Lucia's choice is Portius, though she proposes to postpone progress of their relation while "a cloud of mischief" hangs over them all, to which Portius grievingly submits. Sempronius' rebellion is turned away by the mere presence of Cato confronting the rebels. Disguised in Juba's dress, the angry Sempronius gains access to Marcia's chambers in the hope of carrying her away, but is surprised and killed by Juba. Marcia enters grieving for what she thinks is the fallen Juba, overheard by him, thinking first she is speaking of Sempronius, until he hears her say to his joy: "Marcia's whole soul was full of love and Juba." In defense of Rome against Numidian troops, Marcus blocks Syphax' path, but both are killed in battle. Cato admires his son's death. "Welcome, my son!" he exclaims. "Here lay him down, my friends,/Full in my sight, that I may view at leisure/The bloody corpse, and count those glorious wounds." Yet Caesar's march is inexorable. In despair, Cato falls on his sword after recommending Juba to Marcia, Portius to Lucia. In grief over the loss of his father and his country's woes, Portius concludes thus: "From hence, let fierce contending nations know/What dire effects from civil discord flow:/'Tis this that shakes our country with alarms;/And gives up Rome a prey to Roman arms;/Produces fraud, and cruelty, and strife,/And robs the guilty world of Cato's life."