English 6236:  Restoration Literature -- Class 8


Drama -- Comedy of Late Restoration



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

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

(search under Behn’s Collected Works, volume 3)

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

Southerne, Oroonoko (course docs)


Post 9

Critical Summary -- Jessica Cook:  MacDonald, Joyce Green. "Race, Women, and the Sentimental in Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko." Criticism 40.4 (1998): 555-570.

Oroonoko Annotations by Donna French and Kevin Jordan




Contexts and Backgrounds:


These plays span nearly a decade leading to and following the political upheaval of the Glorious Revolution.  The Lucky Chance (1686), She Ventures and He Wins (1695) and Oroonoko (1695) 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) as quoted last week.


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?


How does Johnson's criticism (see last week) compare with Aphra Behn's in the epistle to the Dutch Lover?


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




Southerne’s Oroonoko (1695)


The edition I have included in PDF in course docs is taken from an undated edition from the early eighteenth century (available on ECCO).


Consider the work as a piece of drama representative of its age.  How does it compare with Ariade’s work?  Does this offer a unique or striking illumination of the issues in the mid 90s?  Evaluate the combination of comic and tragic plots.


Consider the work as an adaptation.  How does this work complete or contest the work of the same title by Aphra Behn?  What does it take from Behn?  What does it bring new to the drama?  What other influences can you identify (e.g. the heroic drama of Dryden)?  Catherine Gallagher claims that the play eventually became better known than the novel.  Why might this happen?  Southerne himself wondered why Behn did not write Oroonoko for the stage herself – can you conjecture as to why a narrative might have suited the story better for Behn?  What does one gain or lose by converting the story to different genres?


Consider the work as an anti-slave piece.  How does the play represent slavery?  What does the play have to say about colonialism?  Are these different in the tragic and the comic plots?  Is Oroonoko a “hero”?  How or why?  What role does love play in the depiction of Oroonoko’s character?  Does this augment or detract from his heroic character?  Does it complement or undermine the anti-slave theme of the work?  According to Catherine Gallagher, this play would go on to be adapted several more times during the eighteenth-century, until it ultimately came to be seen as a strong statement against slavery.  What elements of the play might be developed further into an anti-slavery message? 


What is the effect of the play’s representation of slavery and marriage as institutions that are fundamentally economic?  What is gained by the comparison between marriage and slavery?


Here we have the opportunity to test Rosenthal’s claim that plays take on social conflicts more directly than novels. What social conflicts are confronted in Oroonoko the play?  To your mind, are these more or less direct than those confronted in the novel? What are the differences and what implications do they have?


In his dedication, Southerne writes of Oroonoko:  “Whatever has happen’d to him at Surinam, he has mended his condition in England.  He was born here under your Graces influence; and that has carried his fortune farther into the world than all the Poetical Stars that I could have solicited for his success” (np).  What does this mean?  How does the play Oroonoko construct the place of Surinam?  Of London or England?