The dramatic literature of the eighteenth century was not of a high order. In fact there was a gradual deterioration and during the last quarter of the century drama was moving towards its lowest ebb. One of the reasons of the decline of drama during the eighteenth century was the Licensing Act of 1737 which curtailed the freedom of expression of dramatists. The result was that a number of writers like Fielding, who could make their marks as dramatists, left the theatre and turned towards the novel. Moreover, the new commercial middle classes which were coming into prominence imposed their own dull and stupid views on the themes that would be acceptable to the theatre. Naturally this was not liked by first-rate writers who wanted to write independently.
In the field of tragedy two opposing traditions—Romantic and Classical—exercised their influence on the dramatists. The Romantic tradition was the Elizabethan way of writing tragedy. Those who followed this tradition made use of intricate plots and admitted horror and violence on the open stage. The Classical tradition which was mainly the French tradition of writing tragedy was characterised by the unfolding of a single action without any sub-plot, and long declamatory speeches delivered by the actors. The traditional English pattern of drama was exemplified by Otway’s Venice Preserved, while the Classical tradition was strictly upheld in Addison’s Cato (1713), which is written in an unemotional but correct style, and has a pronounced moralising tone. Other tragedies which were written according to the Classical pattern were James Thomson’s Sophonisba (1729) and Dr. Johnson’s Irene (1749). But none of these tragedies, whether following the Romantic or the Classical tradition came up to a respectable dramatic standard, because the creative impulse seems to have spent itself. Though a very large number of tragedies were written during the eighteenth century, they had literary, but no dramatic value. Mostly there were revivals of old plays, which were adapted by writers who were not dramatists in the real sense of the term.
In the field of comedy, the same process of disintegration was noticeable. Comedy was deteriorating into farce. Moreover, sentimentality which was opposed to the authority of reason, came to occupy an important place in comedy. This ‘sentimental’ comedy which gained in popularity was criticised by Goldsmith thus:
“A new species of dramatic composition has been introduced under the name of sentimental comedy, in which the virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed; and the distresses rather than the faults of mankind make our interest in the pieces. 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 or 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.
Steele was the first exponent of the sentimental comedy in the eighteenth century. In his plays, such as The Funeral, The Lying Lover, The Tender Husband, The Conscious Lovers, Steele extolled the domestic virtues. His object was didactic, and he tried to prove that morality and sharpness of intelligence can go together. In his plays in which tears of pity and emotion flowed profusely, Steele held that Simplicity of mind, Good nature, Friendship and Honour were the guiding principles of conduct.
Other dramatists who wrote sentimental comedies were Colley Cibber, Hugh Kelley and Richard Cumberland. In their hands comedy was so much drenched in emotions and sentiments that the genuine human issues were completely submerged in them. Thus there was a need to rescue the drama from such depths to which it had fallen.
The two great dramatists of the eighteenth century, who led the revolt against sentimental comedy were Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74) and Richard Sheridan (1751-1861). Though in his novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, and in his poem, The Deserted Village, Goldsmith showed clear marks of a sentimental attitude to life, in his Good-Natured Man he covers it with ridicule by portraying the character of Honeywood as unadulterated ‘good-nature’. Though the play is a feeble one, his intentions of mocking the excess of false charity are obvious. His next play, She Stoops to Conquer (1773), which is his masterpiece, was an immediate success. It has always remained one of the half-dozen most popular comedies in the English language. In spite of the obvious improbabilities of the plot, the play moves naturally in a homely atmosphere, full of genuine humour which provokes unrestrained laughter. Here there is no artificiality of sentimental comedy. The main characters—Hardcastle and Tony Lumpkin are very clearly delineated. They are at once types and individuals. They are the images of their age, and yet recognizable as human figures. She Stoops to Conquer went a long way in restoring comedy to its own province of mirth and laughter and rescuing it from too much sentimentality.
Richard Brinsely Sheridan is best known for his two comedies—The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777). Sheridan brought back the brilliance of the witty and elegant Restoration comedy, purged of its impurities and narrowness. He created, instead, a more genial and romantic atmosphere associated with the comedies of Shakespeare. His characters are as clearly drawn as those of Ben Jonson, but they move in a gayer atmosphere. The only defect that we find in these comedies of Sheridan is that there is all gaiety, but no depth, no new interpretation of human nature.
The intrigue in The Rivals, though not original, is skilfully conducted. The audience heartily laugh at humours of Mrs. Malaprop, Sir Anthony, and Bab Acres. In The School for Scandal Sheridan showed himself as a mature dramatist. Here the dialogue has the exquisite Congreve-like precision, and wit reigns supreme. Even the stupid characters, the servants, are witty. Though the main characters, the quarrelsome couple and the plotting brothers; the ‘scandal-club’ of Lady Sneerwell; and the intrigue leading inevitably to the thrilling resolution in the famous screen scene, are all familiar, and can be found in many other plays, yet they are invested with novelty. In both these plays Sheridan reversed the trend of sentimentalism by introducing realism tinged with the geniality of romance. He had no message to convey, except that the most admirable way of living is to be generous and open-hearted.