Anti-Sentimental Comedy – Definition & Meaning

Oliver Goldsmith and R. B. Sheridan revolted against the sentimental comedies of 18th century and pleaded for fresh humour on the stage. According to them, sentimental comedies are mulish production. They make us weep instead of making us laugh. A true comedy should provide us with rollicking laughter which we find in the comedies of William Shakespeare. While the comedies of Goldsmith are anti-sentimental in the sense of giving us pure Shakespearean humour, the comedies of Sheridan give us a criticism of life in the aristocratic society of his time.

Goldsmith seems equally casual in his entry into drama. His own work is so full of genuine and recognizable emotions that one can easily understand that he had a deep antagonism to the false excesses of sentimentalism. When he came into the theatre with The Good Natur’d Man in 1768 it was with the deliberate intention of exposing the strained emotionalism of Kelly and Cumberland. Much in the play shows that Goldsmith is new to the stage and some of the scenes and motives seem not wholly to have detached themselves from the type of drama which he is out to attack. Still the satire was keen enough to be recognized by eighteenth century audiences and they opposed a play in which their emotional indulgences were parodied.

Admirable in its period, The Good Naur’d Man has not the qualities to lift it into that small group of plays whose power of entertainment remains potent from one generation to another. It was otherwise with She Stoops to Conquer, or The Mistakes of a Night (1773) for this has given pleasure whenever it has been reproduced. It survives rough handling by the rawest of amateurs and yields a new vitality when the best of theatrical talent is devoted to it. The critics have found many faults in it, but then how easily the critics do discover these blemishes in great works of art. The most memorable thing that T.S. Eliot said about Hamlet was that it was imperfect, while A. C. Bradley once permitted himself the sentence that something of the confusion which bewilders the reader’s mind in King Lear recurs in Antony and Cleopatra, the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies. The task of criticism should be supremely to define the quality which has given certain dramatic works and abiding vitality. In She Stoops to Conquer this can be discovered first in the fable, which, whatever its improbability, is full of strong dramatic situations, easily intelligible, and all contributing towards a main design. This central story, endowed with an atmosphere at once natural and romantic. Is full of that geniality and warmth which are continually such pleasing qualities in Goldsmith’s work. The characterization is strong and unmistakable, but within well-defined types an element of the original has been introduced. The whole combines to make a comedy, never pretentious, never over-subtle, but arising so solidly from what is fundamental in human nature that audiences in succeeding generations have always recognized its quality.

As has been emphasized more than once in this volume, there is very little English comedy that lives on from one generation to another. With the single exception of G. B. Shaw, those who have produced it, Congreve, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, all have had short careers. Of these, one of the most brilliant is Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), and his career is perhaps the strangest, as, unfortunately, it is one of the shortest. He was the son of an actor, and was sent to Harrow for his education. There, according to Lord Holland, ‘he was slighted by the masters and tormented by the boys as a poor player’s son’. As a result he had an aversion to the stage. If he refused to act in a theatre he became in real life involved in an adventure which has all the motives of an eighteenth-century comedy. To save the beautiful Elizabeth Linley from an undesirable suitor he eloped with her and went through a form of marriage. As a consequence he had to fight two duels to save his reputation, and later he fell in love with the lady whom he had been previously platonically protecting. In 1772 they settled in London, in the centre of the world of fashion, and sheer indigence forced Sheridan to turn to that world of the theatre which he had attempted to avoid.

His later career is less well remembered. He abandoned the stage for politics, and became at one time or another Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Secretary to the Treasury, and Treasurer of the Navy. One could willingly have spared every one of those honours for ten years of comedy. As it is all that is important comes within four years: The Rivals (1775), The School for Scandal (1777) and The Critic (1779). To these can be added the short farce of St. Patrick’s Day and the lively and successful comic opera The Duenna, both of which belong to 1775, the same year as The Rivals. In 1977, a few months before The School for Scandal was enacted for the first time, he prepared an adaptation of Vanbrugh’s The Relapse under the title of A Trip to Scarborough.

Of The Rivals, which is a miracle as a first play, Sheridan’s own opinion was very modestly expressed, and Moore in his Diary goes as far as to affirm that Sheridan always said The Rivals was one of the worst plays in the language and he would have given anything he had to have written it. It is a comedy which acts far better than it reads, and this accounts for the patronizing tone of the opinion expressed by some contemporary periodicals: A typical example of this critical myopia appears in The Gentleman’s Magazine: “The dialogue of the comedy is, in general, natural and pleasing; as to the plot, though we have often heard of younger brothers and fortune-hunters assuming fictitious titles and estates as credentials to rich heiresses, it seems very unlikely that real rank and fortune should be deemed an objection, and therefore disclaimed as in the piece before us. Here the marvellous and the romantic seem to lose sight of the natural and probable. The immediate popularity lay partly in the skill with which Sheridan combined the wit and elegance of a manners comedy. Freed from all immodesty of the Restoration pattern. With scenes of sentimentality which could be played ‘straight’ or treated ironically. It is more difficult to account for the permanent power which the play has possessed over audiences in the theatre. Sheridan seemed to have some innate knowledge of the conventions of the stage. His characterization is broad, and indeed in Mrs Malapropos it may be urged that it is too broad. Still it consistently gives magnificent opportunities to the players. The plot, which would not serve for a novel, holds together admirably in the theatre. The exposition is quickly, even entertainingly, given and the purely comic plot is mingled with the sentimental. The whole has elegance, and one is again reminded that while morals make men good, it is manners that make them interesting. One of the most original things in the play is the dialogue. This is Sheridan’s own invention. It is sometimes said that Shaw makes all his characters witty or at least amusing, but so do Congreve and Sheridan and Wilde. If the characters talked as they would do in real life they would be unbearably dull, but a ‘nice derangement of epithets’ makes them entertaining and despite the fact that Sheridan is writing in prose he would seem to have learned from Shakespeare this way of giving a wash of fine words to the play.

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‘As Love for Love’ is to ‘The Way of the World’ so is ‘The Rivals’ to ‘The School’ for Scandal. The later play is more considered, more subtle, more perfect even, but less spontaneous. The farcical elements have been removed; the characterization is firm, penetrating and human and, above all, the plot is one of the most perfect in the whole range of English comedy. Congreve, who had long considered the plot of The Way of the World, allowed his pattern to become so elaborate that elements of obscurity intruded, but Sheridan maintains a complex movement with complete clarity and shows the strength of his command particularly in episodes such as the famous screen scene. The characters, too, are penetrating portraits so that one must go back to Congreve, and sometimes beyond Congreve to Shakespeare, to find the likes of Charles Surface and Lady Teazle. The Critic is a less ambitious play. It is a general burlesque on dramatic absurdities bringing up to date the parodies which in the previous century. Buckingham had invented so successfully in The Rehearsal Augustan tragedy, the sentimental drama, the incongruity of mismanaged stage effects, all these Sheridan burlesqued. It can still give entertainment as modern revivals have shown. There is no play which reveals more fully how Sheridan understood the stage and its conventions. English drama would have been far richer if he could have served it longer.

However uneven in dramatic creation, the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth had some outstanding figures among their actors and actresses. Garrick was retiring by the time that Sheridan had captured the stage, but he wrote an admiring prologue to The School for Scandal. Edmund Kean was finding his way to the stage as a child player before the century had ended, and in the early nineteenth century gave commanding performances of the great Shakespearian roles, particularly Shylock, Richard III, Hamlet Othello and Iago. Roger Kemble formed his own company as an actor and a manager in 1753, and through his marriage with Sarah Ward, became the father of one of the most distinguished of all English theatrical families. John Philip Kemble, his son, was an actor of the declamatory school, and played in all the major Shakespearian roles. He was overshadowed by his sister Mrs Sarah Siddons, one of the great figures of the English stage. She had been engaged by Garrick in the seventies to play Portia at Drury Lane, and from then until 1812, when she gave a farewell performance in Lady Macbeth, she was a figure of incomparable power. Her friendship with all the great literary authors of the day, and the esteem in which she was held by the Royal Family did much to elevate the social status of the actor in the community, where unfortunately the theatre itself as an institution had but little standing. These were not healthy conditions, for as has already been suggested the theatre depends on a multiplicity of efforts all aimed at one end, and the lack of this cannot be compensated by the excellence of one contributor however brilliant that may be.



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