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   The Theatre in the Eighteenth Century and its Audiences  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XII. The Georgian Drama.

§ 1. The Decay of the Drama and the Advance of the Actor.


THOUGH the last forty years of the eighteenth century produced few English plays of primary importance, the period is among the most interesting in the history of the national theatre. Its study shows how complex and perishable are the conditions of dramatic excellence, and explains why one of the chief glories of the English muse sank, for at least a century, beneath the level of literature.   1
  Paradoxical as it may sound, the decay of the drama was partly due to the advance of the actor. In the days of Betterton 1  and Barton Booth, 2  the best player was, in a sense, an intermediary, and the attention of spectators could be held only if characters and situations appealed directly to their understanding. With the coming of Havard, Macklin, Garrick, Mrs. Clive, Spranger Barry, Foote, Yates, Mrs. Abington and King, success no longer depended on the excellence of a play. The stage began to offer a new and non-literary attraction. It was enough for the dramatist to give a “cue for passion”; he need only serve as a collaborator, as one whose work was half finished till presented by a trained performer. O’Keeffe’s success depended so largely on Edwin’s interpretations that when the actor died the playwright was expected to fail. Colman the younger’s Eustace de St. Pierre 3  was a mere outline till Bensley gave it life, and Cumberland’s O’Flaherty, in The West Indian, was hardly more than a hint out of which Moody, following the example of Macklin’s Sir Callaghan in Love à-la-mode, developed the stage Irishman. When older and greater plays were being performed, the public was still chiefly attracted by the novelty of the acting. Abel Drugger was enjoyed because of Weston’s byplay, and Vanbrugh’s character of Lord Foppington was almost forgotten in Woodward’s impersonation of it. True inspiration was still, of course, the best material on which the player could work, as Garrick found in performing Richard III or Macklin in his new interpretation of Shylock. But, even in the revival of old plays, the masterpieces of the Elizabethan drama were altered to suit the powers of the actor. When Hamlet was re-edited by Cibber, and Lear by Nahum Tate, playwrights must have perceived that literary talent was no longer a necessity. It became even rarer as the theatre rose in public estimation. Thanks to actors, plays had longer runs, and people paid more to see them. Those who contributed towards the production of these fashionable entertainments began to prosper, and the more dramatists enjoyed the luxuries of conventional society, the less they retained touch with the tragedy and comedy of real life. Quin 4  was the last of the old school, and Macklin was the first to bring his own personality into his interpretations. 5  But the conflict between classical literature and dramatic taste was undecided, till Garrick’s genius showed that gesture, pose and facial expression were so effective that even the dumb-show of ballet-pantomimes could please an audience more than old-time rhetoric. 6    2

Note 1. 1635–1710. [ back ]
Note 2. d. 1733. [ back ]
Note 3. In The Siege of Paris. [ back ]
Note 4. 1693–1756. [ back ]
Note 5. “I spoke so familiar Sir, and so little in the hoity-toity tone of the tragedy of that day, that the manager told me that I had better go to grass for another year or two.” Macklin, alluding to Rich, who had dismissed him from Lincoln’s Inn fields. See Kirkman, J., Memoirs of the Life of Charles Macklin (1799). [ back ]
Note 6. Noverre, in Lettres sur les Arts, testifies to Garrick’s skill in pantomime. Walpole, in describing Glover’s Boadicea, gives conclusive evidence of the importance of acting when he says “Then there is a scene between Lord Sussex and Lord Cathcart, two captives, which is most incredibly absurd: but yet the parts are so well acted, the dresses so fine, and two or three scenes pleasing enough, that it is worth seeing.” To George Montagu, 6 December, 1753. [ back ]

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   The Theatre in the Eighteenth Century and its Audiences  
 
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