English 6236:Restoration Literature -- Class 8

 

Drama -- Comedy of Late Restoration

 

Assignment:

Behn: The Lucky Chance including Preface (Other 62-137)

Located online through Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.net/catalog/

(search under Behnís Collected Works, volume 3)

Ariadne: She Ventures and He Wins (Lyons & Morgan 103-160)

Congreve: The Way of the World (Harris 515-596)

 

Post 7

Presentations by Lee Wilkerson and Liz Zollner

 

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Contexts and Backgrounds:

 

These plays span over a decade leading to and following the political upheaval of the Glorious Revolution.The Lucky Chance (1686), She Ventures and He Wins (1695) and The Way of the World (1699) reflect in subtle and dramatic ways the cultural shift in taste.

 

From Raymond Williams' The Long Revolution:

 

When an art-form changes, as the direct result of changes in society, we meet a very difficult problem in criticism, for it quite often happens that a local judgment will show a form that has been brought to a high level of skill and maturity being replaced by forms that are relatively crude and unsuccessful.With the ending of a Restoration drama based on an aristocratic and fashionable audience, and its replacement by a very mixed middle-class drama based on a wider social group, we see one of the clearest and most famous of these cases.Most critics have been natural Cavaliers, and have represented the change as a disaster for the drama.Yet it is surely necessary to take a longer view.The limited character of Restoration drama, and the disintegration of a general audience which had preceded it, were also damaging.Again, while the early products of eighteenth-century middle-class culture were regarded (often with justice) as vulgar, we must, to tell the whole story, follow the development down, to the points where the 'vulgar' novel became a major literary form, and where the despised forms of 'bourgeois tragedy' and 'sentimental comedy' served, in their maturity, a wide area of our modern drama.The development of middle-class drama is in fact one of the most interesting cases we have of a changing society leading directly to radical innovations in form.

 

While we are not reading any so-called "sentimental comedy," the plays for today demonstrate a more pronounced interest in the middle classes.What evidence do you find for this?How do the plays differ from earlier comedy?

 

Aphra Behn opens her "Epistle to the Reader" affixed to the printed version of the Dutch Lover (1673):"Good, Sweet, Honey, Sugar-Candied Reader," and proceeds to chastise the captious critic for demanding learning from a comedy:

 

. . . [A]s I would not underalue poetry, so neither am I altogether of their judgement who believe no wisdom in the world beyond it.I have often heard indeed (and read) how much the world was anciently obliged to it for most of that which they called science, which my want of letters makes me less assured of than others happily may be: but I have heard some wise men say that no considerable part of useful knowledge was this way communicated, and on the other way, that it hath served to propogate so many idle superstitions, as all the benefits it hath or can be guilty of, can never make sufficient amends for; which unaided by the unlucky charms of poetry, could never have possessed a thinking creature such as man.However true this is, I am myself well able to affirm that none of all our English poets, and least the dramatic (so I think you call them) can be justly charged with too great reformation of men's minds or manners. . . .

. . . I will have leave to say that in my judgement the increasing number of our latter plays have not done much more towards the amending of men's morals, or their wit, than hath the frequent preaching, which this last age hath been pestered with, (indeed without all controversy they have done less harm), nor can I once imagine what temptation anyone can have to expect it from them; for sure I am no play was ever writ with that design.If you consider tragedy, you'll find their best characters unlikely patterns for a wise man to pursue: for he that is the Knight of the play, no sublunary feats must serve his Dulcinea . . . .and truly if he come not something near this pitch I think the tragedy's not worth a farthing; for plays were certainly intended for the exercising of men's passions, not their understandings, and he is infinitely far from wise that will bestow one moment's meditation on such things: and as for comedy, the finest folks you meet with there are still unfitter for your imitation, for though within a leaf or two of the prologue, you are told that they are people of wit, good humour, good manners, and all that: yet if the authors did not kindly add their proper names, you'd never know them by their characters. . .. nor is this error very lamentable, since as I take it comedy was never meant, either for a converting or a conforming ordinance.In short, I think a play the best divertisement that wise men have: but I do also think them nothing so who do discourse as formally about the rules of it, as if 'twere the grand affair of human life.

 

What stand does Behn take on the value of comedy?To what extent do her plays support this view?Compare this perspective with those of Artistotle and Sidney on history and poetry.

 

Compare the ideas expressed in this epistle (1673) with the tone and argument in her preface to The Lucky Chance (1686).In what ways has her opinion (or voice) changed?With what issue is she mainly concerned in the later preface?To what extent is she being genuine in her claim that her play is modest?How does the play The Lucky Chance compare with her description of it in the preface?

 

Compare Jeremy Collier from A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698):

 

The business of plays is to recommend virtue and dicountenance vice; to show the uncertainty of human greatness, the sudden turns of fate, and the unhappy conclusions of violence and injustice; 'tis to expose the singularities of pride and fancy, to make folly and falsehood contemptible, and to bring everything that is ill under infamy and neglect.This design has been oddly pursued by the English stage.Our poets write with a different view and are gone into another interest. . . .That this complaint is not unreasonable I shall endeavor to prove by showing the misbehavior of the stage with respect to morality and religion.Their liberties in the following particulars are intolerable, viz., their smuttiness of expression; their swearing, profaneness, and lewd application of Scripture; their abuse of the clergy, their making their top characters libertines and giving them success in their debauchery.This charge, with some other irregularities, I shall make good against the stage and show both the novelty and scandal of the practice.And, first, I shall begin with the rankness and indecency of the language.

 

On Language:

 

. . . . Sometimes you have it in image and description; sometimes by way of allusion; sometimes in disguise; and somtimes without it.And what can be the meaning of such a representation unless it be to tincture the audience, to extinguish shame, and make lewdness a diversion?This is the natural consequence, and therefore one would think 'twas the intention too.Such licentious discourse tends to no point but to stain the imagination, to awaken folly, and to weaken the defenses of virtue.

 

. . . .I grant the abuse of the thing is no argument against the use of it.However, young people particularly should not entertain themselves with a lewd picture, especially when 'tis drawn by a masterly hand.For such a liberty may probably raise those passions which can neither be discharged without trouble, nor satisfied without a crime.'Tis not safe for a man to trust his virtue too far, for fear it should give him the slip!But the danger of such an entertainment is but part of the objection; 'tis all scandal and meanness into the bargain.It does in effect degrade human nature; sinks reason into appetite, and breaks down the distinctions between man and beast.Goats and monkeys, if they could speak, would express their brutality in such language as this.

 

On Women

 

Obscenity in any company is a rustic uncreditable talent, but among women 'tis particularly rude.Such talk would be very affrontive in conversation and not endured by any lady of reputation.Whence then comes it to pass that those liberties which disoblige so much in conversation should entertain upon the stage?Do women leave all the regards to decency and conscience behind them when they come to the playhouse?Or does the place transform their inclinations and turn their former aversions into pleasure?Or were their pretenses to sobriety elsewhere nothing but hypocrisy and grimace?Such suppostions as these are all satire and invective.They are rude imputations upon the whole sex.To treat the ladies with such stuff is no better than taking their money to abuse them.It supposes their imagination vicious and their memories ill-furnished, that they are practiced in the language of the stews and pleased with scenes of brutishness.When at the same time the customs of education and the laws of decency are so very cautious and reserved in regard to women -- I say so very reserved -- that 'tis almost a fault for them to understand that they are ill-used.

 

To what extent are Collier's charges valid?What aesthetic values do these criticisms embrace?What moral values?In what ways is this a class-based criticism?To what extent do the plays for today reflect these changes in taste?

 

With regard to women, how does Collier's assessment compare with Behn's in the preface to the Lucky Chance?What role do the "ladies" play in these plays?In the prologues and epilogues?

 

Writing in the late eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson offers the following assessment of the "Collier Controversy":

 

In the reign of Charles the First the Puritans had raised a violent clamour against the drama, which they considered as an entertainment not lawful to Christians, an opinion held by them in common with the church of Rome; and Prynne published Histrio-mastrix, a huge volume in which stage-plays were censured.The outrages and crimes of the Puritans brought afterwards their whole system of doctrine into disrepute, and from the Restoration the poets and the players were left at quiet; for to have molested them would have had the appearance of tendency to puritanical malignity.

 

This danger, however was worn away by time; and Collier, a fierce and implacable nonjuror, knew that an attack upon the theatre would never make him suspected for a Puritan; he therefore (1698) published "A short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage," I believe with no other motive than religious zeal and honest indignation.He was formed for a controvertist; with sufficient learning; with diction vehement and pointed, though often vulgar and incorrect: with unconquerable pertinacity; with wit in the highest degree keen and sarcastic; and with all those powers exalted and invigorated by just confidence in his cause.

 

Thus qualified, and thus incited, he walked out to battle, and assailed at once most of the living writers, from Dryden to D'Urfey.His onset was violent: those passages, which while they stood single had passed with little notice, when they were accumulated and exposed together, excited horror; the wise and the pious caught the alarm; and the nation wondered why it had so long suffered irreligion and licentiousness to be openly taught at the publick charge.

 

Nothing now remained for the poets but to resist or fly.Dryden's conscience, or his prudence, angry as he was, withheld him from the conflict; Congreve and Vanburgh attempted answers.Congreve, a very young man, elated with success, and impatient of censure, assumed an air of confidence and security.His chief artifice of controversy is to retort upon his adversary his own words: he is very angry, and, hoping to conquer Collier with his own weapons, allows himself in the use of every term of contumely and contempt; but he has the sword without the arm of Scanderbeg; he has his antagonist's coarseness, but not his strength.Collier replied; for contest was his delight: he was not to be frighted from his purpose or his prey.

 

The cause of Congreve was not tenable: whatever glosses he might use for the defence or palliation of single passages, the general tenour and tendency of his plays must always be condemned.It is acknowledged, with universal conviction, that the perusal of his works will make no man better; and that their ultimate effect is to represent pleasure in alliance with vice, and to relax those obligations by which life ought to be regulated.

 

What does Johnson's assessment of Congreve's plays suggest about the reason we read or watch plays?To what extent are the evaluations of drama contingent upon historical context and social values?How does Johnson's criticism compare with Aphra Behn's in the epistle to the Dutch Lover?

 

How would the other plays for tonight stand under his criticism?To what extent are these, therefore, bad plays?